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Window Into Miers' Legal Thinking in the 1990s Reflects a Glint of Liberalism

October 14, 2005|Scott Gold and Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writers

HOUSTON — In the early 1990s, lawyer-bashing was all the rage. And Harriet Miers didn't like it one bit.

Then the president of the State Bar of Texas, Miers used her monthly column in the Texas Bar Journal to condemn politicians who were trying to score points by disparaging the legal profession. She suggested the criticism was myopic, and noted that it was coming, by and large, from Republicans.

It was time, she wrote, to "fight back."

The written record of President Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court is meager. But her musings in the Texas Bar Journal in 1992 and 1993 offer a window into a different era for Miers.

At the time, she was perched atop a fractious organization of 55,000 lawyers that included law-and-order prosecutors, boardroom advisors and legal clinicians paid in chickens on the border. The crosscurrents were fierce, and Miers fought them by choosing a path that could safely be described as politically moderate and, at times, liberal -- by Texas standards anyway.

She called for increased funding for legal services for the poor and suggested that taxes might have to be raised to achieve the notion of "justice for all."

She praised the benefits of diversity, called for measures that would send more minority students to law schools, and said that just because a woman was the head of the state bar did not mean that "all unfair barriers for women have been eradicated."

She was upset that although poverty was rising in Texas, impoverished families received a disproportionately small share of welfare and Medicaid benefits.

And she was an unapologetic defender of her profession, even the oft-maligned "trial lawyer."

"Lawyers are about seeking the truth, preserving a system to achieve fairness and justice and protecting the freedom of individuals against the tyranny of the majority view," she wrote.

Miers is believed to have undergone something of a political evolution since then.

Still, her emerging record as a lawyer in Texas could foment concern among conservatives that she would not be a reliable ally -- and maybe it should, said Jim Parsons, a state district judge from Palestine, Texas, a friend of Miers' and a self-described "dyed-in-the-wool Democrat" who supports her nomination.

Since Bush announced Miers' nomination, some conservatives have voiced concerns about the "Souter factor" -- a reference to Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, who was nominated to the court by Bush's father but has regularly sided with the court's liberal wing.

They have cited her contention while running for the Dallas City Council that gays deserved the same civil rights as anyone else and her financial contributions to former Vice President Al Gore and the Democratic National Committee.

But Parsons said the answer to Washington's conundrum was simple. Miers, he said, does not fit into the tidy political paradigm of the Beltway, or at least she didn't when she was president of the State Bar of Texas.

"I've never known her to be either a bra-burning Democrat or the comparable Republican," said Parsons, who was president of the bar in 1990 and 1991. "She's just not an ideologue."

Dallas lawyer Mark Curriden said that although most lawyers in Texas agreed that Miers was "very smart," conservatives for the most part disliked her work with the bar.

"They don't trust the bar," he said. "They don't want anything to do with it."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Thursday that the administration was in the process of turning over documents to the Senate Judiciary Committee that covered her years as a lawyer and her time as head of the Dallas and state bars.

McClellan sought to explain comments she made in a 1989 Dallas case in which she reportedly said she would not belong to an organization like the Federalist Society, which she characterized as "politically charged." The society is a conservative legal group that has attracted many Bush administration officials. McClellan said Miers had been supportive of the society.

Miers' most pointed Texas Bar Journal column came in 1993 in response to an effort by politicians -- including Bush and his father -- to seize upon the public's distaste for lawyers. The campaign was the foundation of what is now known as tort reform, the effort by executives and conservatives to limit the civil court system and to tackle the perceived -- but disputed -- proliferation of litigation and costly class-action lawsuits.

"We all got painted with the same broad brush. And I think there was great cry and hue within the profession," said Darrell E. Jordan, bar president in 1989 and 1990, managing partner of Godwin Gruber, a Texas trial and appellate firm, and a self-described moderate Republican. "Harriet was taking up for the fact that the whole profession was getting bashed by some sort of indiscriminate rhetoric."

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