Senators React to Miers Survey on Abortion

The White House is downplaying a 16-year-old questionnaire in which Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers indicates that she would back a constitutional amendment banning most abortions in Texas. Some in the Senate, however, think the news is significant.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

If she's confirmed, Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers would replace Sandra Day O'Connor, who was seen as a swing vote on abortion cases. That's one reason people are looking so closely at a document Miers submitted. She turned it over as part of her confirmation process. The document shows that Miers once favored a constitutional ban on all abortions, except when the life of the mother is at risk. NPR's David Welna reports on the response from the senators considering her nomination.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

According to senators who've recently met with Harriet Miers, she contends she has not discussed and no one else knows her personal views on abortion, which is why when Miers sent back more than 60 pages of answers to questions posed by the Judiciary Committee, it was a separate questionnaire she filled out in 1989 and included in her response that got all the attention. It was from an anti-abortion group called Texans United for Life, and in the run-up to her campaign for a seat on the Dallas City Council, that group wanted to know if Congress passed a constitutional amendment banning abortion, unless a woman's life is at stake, would Miers back its approval by the Texas Legislature? Her answer was, yes, just as it was to nine other anti-abortion questions. When one of Miers' chief Senate defenders, Texas Republican John Cornyn, was asked about this disclosure, he sought to minimize its importance, saying a judge's personal beliefs are beside the point.

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): So I would say that that information is interesting. Some people may draw their own conclusions by it, but I believe that Harriet Miers will be the kind of judge that will not attempt to pursue a personal or political agenda from the bench.

WELNA: At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan also sought to downplay the document, saying essentially that that was then and this is now.

Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): The role of a judge is very different from the role of a candidate or a political office holder, and what she was doing in that questionnaire is expressing her views during the course of a campaign.

WELNA: Others have a very different take. Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback is an anti-abortion crusader on the Judiciary Committee, who's expressed disappointment with Miers' nomination. He says he'll be watching whether Miers tries to distance herself from her anti-abortion promises of 16 years ago.

Senator SAM BROWNBACK (Republican, Kansas): My guess is she's going to publicly say, `That doesn't tell you how I'm going to vote on Roe as a legal matter. That says as a political matter, I would have done this,' but I think it does reveal some of her beliefs and intentions.

WELNA: A strong advocate for abortion rights on the Judiciary Committee also found Miers' anti-abortion vows significant. Dianne Feinstein is a California Democrat.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): It reveals rather starkly that she has taken a very strong position and that that is, as far as a woman's right to choose, a negative position.

WELNA: But another committee Democrat, New York's Charles Schumer, pointed out that Miers' anti-abortion promises came a year after she donated a thousand dollars to the Democratic National Committee. He thinks Americans now have even more of a right to be confused about Miers' views.

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): When you see a questionnaire like this, where you're just checking off a list of questions, you say we really have to learn what Harriet Miers thinks on a whole range of constitutional issues, privacy and choice among them.

WELNA: There were other surprises in Miers' response to the committee's questionnaire. She revealed she'd had her right to practice law in the District of Columbia suspended this year for getting behind in her dues to the DC Bar, a situation she said she quickly remedied. And she could not recall which years she'd held many key posts, such as chair of the board of the Dallas Bar Association. Former Texas Supreme Court Justice Raul Gonzalez came to the Capitol yesterday and sought to allay concerns about his longtime friend's nomination.

Mr. RAUL GONZALEZ (Former Texas Supreme Court Justice): I've known Harriet for 20 years. Harriet has tried numerous jury trials with a broad spectrum of clients. She's been in the trenches.

WELNA: But others pointed out that most of the litigation Miers had been involved in never came to trial. Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions is on the Judiciary Committee that will grill Miers probably extensively.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): It's going to be tough for her, and anything that appears to be a mistake, you know, is not good.

WELNA: Another Senate Republican, Virginia's George Allen, said he still had many questions for Miers. He compared her nomination to the drafting of a once unknown star quarterback.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): The fact that Eagles fans booed Donovan McNabb when he was drafted. Well, let's see how Harriet Miers will be. I'm not saying she'll be a Donovan McNabb, but I think she ought to be accorded the due process and fairness to allow her to state her case as to her judicial philosophy.

WELNA: And with a limited paper trail that's even shorter because the White House won't release her work papers, it may all come down to how well Miers states her case when she comes before the committee. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: You can find Harriet Miers' answers to the Senate questionnaire, everything from her full name to her employment history to something about her judicial philosophy, as well as that document on abortion, at npr.org.

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