The many faces of Harriet

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Oct. 18 2005 4:49 PM

The Many Faces of Harriet

Miers supports, opposes, and is neutral on Roe, all within 24 hours!

There is a huge problem with the White House strategy shift on Harriet Miers this week. The idea was to shift the focus from her heart and her eternal soul and her unfaltering fealty to all things Bush (read: her views on abortion) and back toward her substantive legal qualifications. But the only substantive legal qualification anyone cares about right now is Harriet Miers' views on abortion. Having jettisoned the John Roberts playbook, in which the nominee and the White House say nothing whatsoever about Roe, the Bush team has put itself in the unenviable position of having to keep talking and un-talking and re-talking about abortion. They set the terms of this debate—even if they did so in code—as a set of promises about Harriet Miers and abortion, and now it's all anyone wants to talk about.

We can talk about Roe in religious code ("Shhhh. Miers is a member of a fundamentalist church.") or we can talk about it in constitutional code ("Shhhhh. Miers supports the right to privacy.") It hardly matters. Miers and the White House just can't seem to stop talking.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

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First, Miers was for reversing Roe: On Oct. 3, Karl Rove apparently hooked up James Dobson and other members of a coalition of evangelical groups with two Texas judges including Nathan Hecht—for weeks the White House's sole expert witness on All Things Harriet. As reported in yesterday's Wall Street Journal, Hecht and Judge Ed Kinkeade assured the Christian right that Miers would "absolutely" vote to overturn Roe. So, now the lot of them face the prospect of being subpoenaed to testify before the Judiciary Committee, where they will assuredly say that they cannot recall anyone promising them that Miers would do what she would have needed to do in order to win their support in the first place.

Then Miers was for privacy: After meeting with her yesterday, Sen. Arlen Specter came away happily reporting that Miers agreed with Griswold v. Connecticut—the 1965 case establishing that married people had the right to use contraception, by way of privacy rights guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution. John Roberts had testified, in the one interesting nanosecond of his confirmation hearings, that he had no problem with Griswold. So, Specter's report seemed par for the course. But no! Suddenly Harriet has a problem with Griswold. Obviously the good senator from Pennsylvania misunderstood her, as he announced last night. She had in fact offered no opinion to him on Griswold. She must have been talking about Grisburn v. Massachusetts—a little-known tax case from 1987.

Nor, she told Sen. Charles Schumer of New York in no uncertain terms, does anyone know "my views on Roe v. Wade." But today it seems that a whole lot of pro-lifers not only know her views on the subject but were assured of her support in reversing it. Affixed to the mostly innocuous responses to the Judiciary Committee questionnaire she turned in this morning was another questionnaire, from 1989, which she filled out at the behest of Texans United for Life while running for Dallas City Council. In this document, the eager-to-please candidate pledged her willingness to actively support ratification of a constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, unless it was necessary to save the life of the mother. She promised to oppose the use of city money to "promote, encourage or provide referrals for abortions." She pledged to vote against the appointment of "pro-abortion persons" to any city boards or committees that dealt with health issues. (Here she appended this lawyerly qualification: "to the extent pro-life views are relevant.") She also promised to use her influence as a pro-life official to "promote the pro-life cause."

Well that doesn't sound like someone who's given no thought to Roe v. Wade. Or like someone whose opinions on the subject are a big secret.

Now, it's hard to overstate how utterly stupid these questionnaires are: Only last week social conservatives were wigging out over Miers' replies to another 1989 questionnaire—this one from the Lesbian/Gay Political Coalition of Dallas—also filled out while she was running for City Council. In that document she acknowledged that gays and lesbians deserve the same civil rights as everyone else. Still, despite the absurdity of a system in which empty promises are swapped for political endorsements, these documents reveal volumes, even if it's only that candidate Miers would promise whatever she had to in order to be elected.

The White House was quickly out of the gate this morning, again reassuring us that Miers didn't mean what she had said in 1989: "A candidate taking a political position in the course of a campaign is different from the role of a judge making a ruling in the judicial process," said a White house spokesman this morning. But no one is asking her to make a ruling: We just want to know if she opposes Roe.

Maybe Miers should explain that when she says she hasn't formed an opinion of Roe v. Wade, she means she doesn't have an opinion at this exact instant. Because it's clear that she can't satisfy the far right until and unless she goes on Rush Limbaugh and promises on a stack of state-sanctioned bibles to overturn Roe—whether or not it's on the docket this year. It's equally clear that, despite John Yoo's generous invitation that she do so, Miers is just not going to make that promise. Although I for one would have renewed respect for her if she did.

So I am begging now. This is embarrassing. End it. Karl Rove: Either plant the 500 pounds of cocaine you keep for such occasions in Miers' car, or trot out some actress to play her bitter, gay ex-lover. You have the power to end this. So do whatever it is you do. But end the unnecessary pain and suffering now, before someone really gets hurt.

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