The woman who would be justice

Hard-working. Shy. Thorough. That's how colleagues describe court nominee Harriet Miers.

By , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

In a town of workaholics, the schedule of White House counsel Harriet Miers might be hard to top. The newest nominee to the US Supreme Court is said to work routinely from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., but only the Secret Service can confirm that.

"Actually, 10 p.m. would probably be an early night," says Kristen Silverberg, who worked with Ms. Miers at the White House until a month ago. And in the morning, "when you [went] into the West [Executive] parking spaces, her red car was always there." The red car? A Mercedes - but not a flashy shade of red, adds Ms. Silverberg, now an assistant secretary of State.

In interviews with friends and colleagues past and present, the same adjectives come up over and over again: hard-working, shy, thorough, caring, devoted to serving her clients. Since 2001, there has been just one client, President Bush.

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Since Miers arrived in Washington as a part of Mr. Bush's coterie of trusted Texas advisers, her personal views and ambitions have not been on display. Now she has catapulted into the high-stakes position of Supreme Court nominee, territory that has brought sudden, intense interest in - and concern about - her personal and judicial philosophy.

At a press conference Tuesday, Bush spoke of Miers's character and intellect, but added nothing about her views. He says he has never asked her personal opinion on the subject of abortion.

"I've known her long enough to know she's not going to change," Bush said. "Twenty years from now she will be the same person with the same judicial philosophy she has today."

His comment appeared to be an attempt to convince doubters that she would not be another Justice David Souter, who was appointed to the bench by Bush's father and who has proved not to be the conservative many Republicans had hoped for.

Born-again Christian

Other clues about Miers are few. She is a churchgoing woman, reportedly a born-again Christian, after a Catholic upbringing. Lorlee Bartos, the woman who ran her campaign for Dallas City Council in 1989, tells The Dallas Morning News that Miers strongly opposed abortion rights at the time, but has not discussed the issue with her subsequently. In 1992, as head of the Texas bar, she opposed the American Bar Association's (ABA) decision to support abortion rights.

"But there are two ways to look at that," says Gary Polland, a Houston lawyer and Republican activist who knows Miers. "Either it means she believes the ABA should be pro-life, or maybe she thought the ABA shouldn't be involved in those issues.... Here's the bottom line: She's a good lawyer, she's smart, and beyond that, who knows?"

The bulk of Miers's 35-year career has been spent in private legal practice. After graduating from Southern Methodist University law school in 1970, she clerked for US District Judge Joe E. Estes.

In 1972, she was the first woman hired at the Dallas law firm Locke, Purnell, Rain & Harrell. In 1985, she became the first female president of the Dallas Bar Association, and in 1992, the first woman president of the Texas State Bar.

In 1996, she was elected first female president of Locke Purnell, the first woman to lead a big Texas law firm (at the time, it employed 200 lawyers).

During her years as a trial litigator, her clients included Microsoft, Walt Disney Co., and SunGard Data Systems Inc. But along the way, her path crossed with Bush, who would become her most influential client, as she advised him on matters both private and public. In 1995, then-Texas Governor Bush made her chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission in an effort to clean it up.

"I am a very big admirer of Harriet's skill and knowledge, her style and intensity," says C. Tom Clowe, Jr., current chairman of the Texas Lottery Commission, who worked with Miers for more than two years before she left for Washington. "She's very businesslike. She's fair and equitable. And those who have criticized her as harsh, I don't see that. I see a well-balanced and even-handed individual who has great respect for the law and legal issues."

In her work at the White House, colleagues credit her for fairness, thoroughness, and an unflappable nature. Chris Marston, currently the Washington director for Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, worked with Miers when he was chief of staff for the Office of the National Drug Control Policy and she was deputy chief of staff for President Bush.

"She always did a very good job making sure that everybody's views were included," he says. "As you can imagine, everything that comes across the president's desk has to be very thorough, and her temperament is very well suited to that kind of work."

Mr. Marston adds that she had her priorities. "She always knew she was working for the president first," he says. "She always made sure he had the best information and would ask really probing questions to get at the heart of something."

And as much as she is known for her Superwoman hours, she is also just as well-known for her devotion to family and friends, remembering birthdays and throwing baby showers for junior colleagues. Many women remember her as a mentor.

Mentor for women

Jennifer Altabef is one. In 1982, she clerked for Miers's old boss, Judge Estes. The two got to know each other when Miers would have lunch with the judge. And after clerking, Ms. Altabef then went to work at the same Dallas law firm Miers eventually headed.

"She never would have said she was anyone's mentor, but she was somebody we all aspired to be," says Altabef. "She's an incredibly kind person. She's very thoughtful and balanced, and is just one of those people who sees all sides of everything."

"She's not going to be the first person to make a joke - she's a very serious person - but she appreciates humor," adds Altabef.

She recalls the devotion she showed to Estes and his wife at the end of their lives, and how Miers threw a baby shower at her home for three of the female lawyers in the firm who were all due around the same time.

"She was always encouraging me. Sometimes when I was discouraged, she would say, 'You are doing the very best you can. You are a young mother and a busy lawyer.' Once she even said to me that I had gotten a lot more out of clerking for the judge than she had because I had met my husband there."

When asked if she thought Miers had regrets about never marrying or having children, Altabef said, "She is a very, very private person. I'm sure she is the kind of person who is happy with who she is. She has that inner confidence and peace and accepts whatever comes her way and makes the best of it."

A mother bear

Around Washington, she has made some good friendships, including with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And she has continued to boost the careers of promising young women - to the point of behaving at times like a mother bear.

Kristen Silverberg, the former White House colleague, remembers a time when Bush expressed irritation with comments she had made on his weekly radio address, and how Miers jumped in and tried to take responsibility, even though it really was Silverberg's fault. "She was feeling protective," she says.

Silverberg also recalls Miers's exacting attention to detail - to the point of finding a math error in a regulatory document that had already gone through months of painstaking work. Miers, after all, majored in mathematics as an undergraduate at Southern Methodist University.

And now Miers faces perhaps the most exacting process of her life: convincing the Senate that this career lawyer, who has never served on any judicial bench, deserves a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land.

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