Miers Withdrawal Surprised Senate Panel's Leahy

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, talks with Steve Inskeep about the withdrawal of Harriet Miers' nomination to the Supreme Court. Leahy says the withdrawal came as a surprise, and that Miers would have had a chance at confirmation if she had been given a hearing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

For the third time this year, President Bush is facing one of the most important decisions a president can make, who to nominate for a lifetime position on the Supreme Court. Back in July, the president nominated John Roberts to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. When Chief Justice William Rehnquist died in September, the president nominated Roberts for that seat instead and three weeks ago named Harriet Miers for the O'Connor seat. Now President Bush will have to find somebody else. Harriet Miers has withdrawn this morning. So far there is no word on who that might be.

We have now some of the responses to today's announcement by Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. She sent a letter to President Bush announcing she would withdraw the nomination. Some of the president's own supporters attacked her qualifications and her conservative credentials. George Washington University law Professor Jonathan Turley says Harriet Miers showed more responsibility by withdrawing than the president showed by nominating her.

Professor JONATHAN TURLEY (Washington University): It's not because Harriet Miers is some type of dope. She's not. She's a very accomplished lawyer, but she lacked the credentials that should justify a Supreme Court nomination.

MONTAGNE: Harriet Miers' conservative critics included David Frum. He's a former White House speechwriter and he was among the first and became one of the fiercest to say that the nomination of Harriet Miers was a mistake.

Mr. DAVID FRUM: I'm greatly relieved. I think Harriet Miers has done the right thing. She's put the president and party first. Let's hope first of all the president comes up with a better nominee the second time. I think this episode has revealed some real weaknesses in the White House staff process. Clearly, this nomination was not checked thoroughly. Clearly, a lot of people acted in impulsive ways that are kind of alarming. So I think that there are some internal reforms there that are going to be necessary. I'm sure they'll have to be.

MONTAGNE: Republican senators say there is a list of 15 or 20 conservatives who would be acceptable to them and they're waiting for the president's next choice.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to get some reaction to today's development from Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy. He is the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee which would have considered Harriet Miers' nomination had that nomination gone forward.

Senator, good morning.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Good morning.

INSKEEP: Democrats have been issuing a number of statements today saying they wish that there had been hearings. Why is your party taking that line?

Sen. LEAHY: Well, I think that any nominee is entitled to a hearing. I've been here for 13 nominees. Frankly, I found that you make up your mind based on the hearing, not what special interest groups of either the right or the left say. That's where you should make up your mind.

INSKEEP: And by saying that there should have been a hearing, I suppose you also emphasize the abruptness with which Harriet Miers withdrew under pressure.

Sen. LEAHY: I was surprised when she withdrew. She called me this morning and told me that. I was very surprised, especially as President Bush has said in the last two days that he had no intention of withdrawing her name.

INSKEEP: Did you think she would have had any chance had the hearings gone forward?

Sen. LEAHY: I think if she did a very good job at the hearing, I think that, yes, she would have. I think, you know, she needed 51 votes or 60 votes at the most, and I think if she did a good job at the hearing, if she showed her qualifications, she would. But, of course, now none of us will know what would have happened at the hearings. I mean, she could have done a poor job at the hearings and not made it through. Either way, it's going to be total speculation because we'll never have that hearing.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned that you spoke to her on the phone. I know you've had private meetings with Harriet Miers as well. Were you impressed with her in the end?

Sen. LEAHY: I was preparing a number of--in fact, I was working on today, I was preparing a number of questions I intended to ask her. Most of them I was going to give to her in advance. It's not a game of catch ya. I just wanted to see what her philosophy was, what her grasp of constitutional law was, and I was looking forward to it.

INSKEEP: Well, now if I can, Senator, forgive me, looking ahead here you mentioned the pressure from conservative groups on the White House. Conservatives have said on this program this morning they're looking forward to who the president names next. There are a number of conservative judges that they'd be very happy with. What kind of pressure will you and your Democratic colleagues face from liberal groups if and when the next nomination moves forward?

Sen. LEAHY: You know what I would suggest? There are a lot of people that President Bush could nominate who would probably get--if not a unanimous vote, a near unanimous vote in the United States Senate. You'd have both Republicans and Democrats supporting the nominee. Why give a reward to the far right, and say, `OK. You forced Harriet Miers, my personal counsel, out of consideration. So now I'm going to reward you?'

INSKEEP: Do you have reason to believe that the White House or interest groups would rather have a big fight on the next nomination?

Sen. LEAHY: I have no idea. I think that some of the interest groups--I mean, this is a great way to raise money by interest groups 'cause they have somebody to have a fight. It's a wonderful way to raise money. I hope that the president would put the country's interest ahead of any special interest group.

INSKEEP: Patrick Leahy is a Democratic senator from Vermont and the senior Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for speaking with us.

Sen. LEAHY: Good talking with you.

MONTAGNE: Now that Harriet Miers has withdrawn, Washington, DC, is engaging in its second favorite activity: second-guessing. Its favorite form of entertainment usually is a good political fight, and until today, the nation's capital was gearing up for an expected fight over President Bush's troubled nomination of Miers to the Supreme Court. Politicians across the political spectrum are saying that the Harriet Miers nomination was a mistake from the start. They're also squabbling over the political battle that led to her withdrawal.

INSKEEP: And here's some more of what they are saying. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California--she's a Democrat and she's one of 14 women in the Senate challenged Miers' nomination but then criticized Republicans for derailing it. She said, quote, "I do not believe they would have attacked a man the way that she was attacked."

Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic Senate leader, said the radical right wing of the Republican Party killed the Harriet Miers nomination. He said they want a nominee with a proven record of supporting their skewed goals.

We have this from Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter who is a Republican from Pennsylvania, would have been one of the key figures at the hearings had they been held for Miers. He has complained the conservative attacks against Miers represented a sad episode in the history of Washington, DC.

This from Louisiana Democrat Mary Landrieu who said Miers deserved a hearing in the Senate but was denied one by extreme partisan pressure. This is the line that many Democrats appear to be taking today to emphasize what they see as the excessive power of conservatives.

Trent Lott is a conservative, a Mississippi Republican, who once led the Senate and he had this comment. `The president in my opinion made a bad choice here. In a month, who will remember Harriet Miers?' which is not what you want to hear if you're Harriet Miers.

We'll continue to cover this story as we learn more. We're waiting to see who President Bush might nominate next.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne.

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