Court proceedings: Locals weigh-in on nomination

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 14, 2005

President George W. Bush's Monday nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court may not have surprised many people but what happens next remains far more unclear.

Miers, 60, has maintained a professional relationship with the president for the past decade and a half. Formerly Bush's personal lawyer in Texas, Miers came with the president to the White House as his staff secretary and was promoted to deputy chief of staff in 2003.

While still learning about Miers, political enthusiasts and others immersed in the legal system all agree the next few months will be critical to the future of the court.

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"A couple of things about this appointment are interesting. It is much more important that the appointment of Chief Justice Roberts to replace Chief Justice Rehnquist because they are both conservative so it won't have as much impact," said Dr. Bob Behrman, chairman of the political science department at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., and a Supreme Court scholar.

"There have been many 5-4 decisions where Justice O'Connor was the swing vote. Not that she swings on her vote but there were four justices who were pretty moderate and a block of four who were pretty conservative. So this position will have even more impact."

If confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, Miers would join Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the Supreme Court and the third to serve over all.

Lawrence County Common Pleas Court Judge Richard Walton said he didn't know too much about Miers but the judge of 25 years knows well the importance of the nation's judicial system - especially the high court.

"Judges are not to be activists. Legislators make the laws," Walton said. "Š I may not like a law, but so what. If I don't like it I can run for the Legislature. But on the bench, it is law and I follow it."

But some pundits are already questioning Miers' qualifications since she has never served as a judge. Dr. Marybeth Beller, a colleague of Behrman at Marshall, doesn't buy that argument.

"She has a good professional background," Beller said of Miers, who served as the first woman president of the Texas State Bar and the Dallas Bar Association. "The fact that she has not served as a judge is not as rare as some think.

"Thirty-nine other people have been appointed, though they may not have made it through confirmation, that have not served as a judge."

Miers' appointment fits with the president's pattern of appointing people from within his inner circle, something that could be both good and bad, Beller said. Still, once someone reaches the high court, it is hard to tell what will happen.

"You never can predict what will happen when someone gets onto the court," Behrman said. "When Justice O'Connor got on in the 1980s, that moved the court to the right. She stayed where she was and the court moved even further to the right so that she ended up right in the middle."

Fellow political science professor Dr. Simon Perry agreed that nobody knows what will happen, including President Bush.

"Throughout history 24 to 25 percent of the presidential appointees have been wayward," Perry said. "This means they have voted in different ways than the president who appointed them may have thought they would."

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist outlined a timetable calling for confirmation by Thanksgiving but that may be optimistic. Behrman said Miers' stances on the big ideological issues will determine how big a fight the confirmation will be.

As an attorney in Dallas, Miers became president in 1996 of Locke Purnell, Rain & Harrell a firm with more than 200 lawyers where she worked starting in 1972. After it merged a few years later, she became co-manager of Locke Liddell & Sapp.

When Bush was governor of Texas, she represented him in a case involving a fishing house. In 1995, he appointed her to a six-year term on the Texas Lottery Commission.

Eager to rebut any charges of cronyism, the White House produced statistics showing that 10 of the 34 Justices appointed since 1933 had worked for the president who picked them. Among them were the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, first tapped for the court by Richard M. Nixon, and Byron White, whose president was John F. Kennedy.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.