Few Clues to Miers’ Convictions
DALLAS -- For Harriet Ellan Miers, the road to a Supreme Court nomination began in summer 1994, with an ugly little legal problem involving an exclusive East Texas fishing camp and the soon-to-be governor, George W. Bush.
A caretaker named J.W. Moseley alleged that Bush and the other members -- who included two former Texas secretaries of state and former Dallas Cowboys owner H.R. “Bum” Bright -- had unjustly fired him out of “spite and ill will.”
For most of the members, men of established wealth and power, the suit was little more than a nuisance. But for Bush, it carried the potential for public embarrassment that no rising political star needs, especially because there was talk that cabins at the camp, known as the Rainbo Club, had been used to gain questionable tax advantages.
Bush turned to Miers, a relative newcomer to his political team. Although lawyers for the other defendants opted for confidential settlements with Moseley, Miers elected to fight. She not only got the complaint against Bush dismissed, she handled it so deftly that there was no awkward publicity.
“It took awhile to get it disposed of, but it did go away. She did a crackerjack job,” said Jim Francis, a Dallas lawyer who originally brought Miers on board as general counsel for the gubernatorial campaign.
A grateful Gov. Bush made Miers his personal attorney -- and a de facto member of his inner circle. It would transform Miers’ life.
“She took the pill. She said: ‘I’m yours,’ ” said a longtime GOP strategist in Texas who has worked with Bush and Miers, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“She put her personal life, everything, on hold.”
That loyalty and commitment, demonstrated repeatedly in Texas and after Miers followed Bush to the White House in 2001, led the president to reassure skeptical conservatives with the simple statement: “I know her heart.”
Some are still unconvinced, however, that Miers can be counted on to deliver swing votes on such ideologically charged issues as abortion and gay marriage.
Part of the reason is that Miers’ life has been marked by dramatic religious and political shifts: She grew up Catholic but as an adult became a born-again Protestant. She was raised a Democrat and gave money in 1988 to Al Gore’s unsuccessful Democratic presidential nomination bid and to then-Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Texas) when he ran for vice president. But she now speaks openly of her devotion to Bush, whom one associate said she considers a “genius.”
On gay and lesbian issues, Miers at one point said homosexuals deserved the same civil rights as straight people and argued that Dallas should fund AIDS education projects. More recently, she has been deeply involved at Valley View Christian Church, which embraces the social policies of the religious right.
Miers’ closest friends, including her companion of 30 years, conservative Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan L. Hecht, say she has never declared whether she would like to see Roe vs. Wade overturned. But her church -- a towering edifice with a pyramid-like steeple in Dallas, not far from the President George Bush Turnpike -- is decidedly antiabortion.
Small wonder that, when someone asked her what she thought people would say about her behind her back, Miers answered: “They can’t figure me out.”
The uncertainty is intensified by the fact that Miers, 60, has managed to leave little evidence of her own values and convictions, beyond her commitment to her church.
As a corporate lawyer, she gained attention not for what she said but how she listened, and for how she kept clients’ names out of the news. Though she served a brief term on the Dallas City Council, few can remember any agendas or programs she pushed. And as a member of her church for about 25 years, she is more likely to be singing in the choir or setting out doughnuts than drawing attention as a White House dignitary in a center pew.
With so much at stake and her record so difficult to discern, Republicans and Democrats are turning for clues to the bits and pieces of Miers’ earlier life.
Miers and Hecht have been close friends for 30 years, as well as romantically involved off and on. That friendship helped foster her midlife conversion to evangelical Christianity.
Around 1980, she was struggling with her Catholic faith and Hecht, a leader at Valley View Christian, invited her to pray with him. She was thirsting for change and decided that faith should be more central to her life, Hecht and others said.
Ron Key, a longtime minister who recently left Valley View, said Miers was soon baptized before the congregation, in a pool behind the choir loft. It was a transformative moment, Key said.
“It wasn’t like this ogre became a wonderful person overnight, because she was already a nice individual,” said Key, who was at the baptismal ceremony. “It was just that her life lacked focus and purpose.”
At a church retreat soon after, “Harriet shared with us how she made that commitment and gave her life to Jesus,” Key said. “Her purpose for life changed. She has a servant’s mentality, and I think that is a tribute to her personal faith. Jesus told his disciples that he didn’t come to be served but to serve. Harriet epitomizes that.”
Hecht played the organ at church. She joined the choir. Together, he said, they watched her faith blossom. She donates generously to the church, he said, which he proudly calls “pro-life,” and he added that “her personal views lie in that direction.”
Outside church, he said, the couple have attended several “pro-life dinners.”
Lorlee Bartos of Dallas, who managed Miers’ 1989 City Council race, said she wanted her candidate “to meet pro-choice women” but that Miers told her she “wasn’t pro-choice.”
Fighting abortion is a central mission at Valley View Christian. Antiabortion brochures and videos are available there. It is a nondenominational “conservative evangelical” pastorate that also describes itself as “Bible-based.”
But it does not impose those positions on its members, Hecht and other church leaders said. Most members -- Hecht estimated about 90% -- are conservative Republicans. The rest are Democrats, he said, including the wife of the senior pastor.
The church is not overtly political, Hecht and others said, but it does sponsor voter registration drives.
“We don’t have a Republican booth or a Democratic booth in the foyer,” said youth pastor Rodney Hull. “But we do encourage people to do their civic duty.”
Church leaders generally discourage partisan political talk at church activities. Valley View’s main focus is social action for the needy. Church fliers list dozens of programs, including helping the homeless and supporting foreign missionaries in impoverished countries.
Key, a pastor for more than three decades, said Miers served on Valley View’s missions committee for 10 years, taught Sunday school, and performed tasks such as brewing coffee and serving doughnuts.
For the last five years, while working in Washington -- where she maintains a residence in addition to her Dallas home -- Miers frequently returned to Texas to visit her mother, often attending the 8:15 a.m. service at Valley View. Afterward, Miers often attended Sunday school -- frequently taught by Hecht -- before flying back to the nation’s capital.
But the church is changing. In the last six weeks, a faction that includes prominent members such as Key and Hecht left the congregation over what the two said were differences over the church’s leadership philosophy. They declined to elaborate.
The faction has been holding informal services elsewhere, which Hecht said Miers attended two weeks ago.
It is not clear whether the split is permanent, or whether Miers would cut ties to Valley View and join the new group.
Still, most members see Miers as one of their own. Barry McCarty, the lead minister, said she embodied the Greek definition of meekness: strength kept under control. “That’s the way the Greeks used it,” he said, “and that’s the way it’s used in the Bible.”
Ann Simmons is one of Miers’ closest friends. Sometimes, in heart-to-heart moments, Simmons said, Miers has confessed she regrets never marrying or having children. But the law has been her life -- until she joined the Bush inner circle, and politics was added.
Before that, though, she was a Democrat, a political alignment she inherited from her parents.
“Anybody who grew up in Texas back then was a Democrat,” Simmons said. “Texas was a Democratic state until the late ‘80s.”
Miers donated $1,000 to Gore in 1988, before the Tennessee senator pulled out of the race for president. That same year she gave $1,000 to Bentsen, whose ticket headed by Michael S. Dukakis lost against George H.W. Bush. She also gave $1,000 to the Democratic National Committee.
She ran for the nonpartisan Dallas City Council in 1989. She was elected to an at-large seat, served two years and didn’t run again.
In 1991, Councilman Jerry Bartos called his colleague “the consummate loner” and rated her effectiveness at “zero.” Miers’ response to Texas reporters: “I’d like to say I’m not doctrinaire.... But I don’t much care what people think.”
Her moment in the spotlight came at a council meeting jammed with black protesters alleging abuse by white policemen. She apologized to the crowd “on behalf of the city” and called the officers’ actions “unprovoked and inexcusable.”
But being a politician was not her style. She preferred to be behind the scenes.
She met George W. Bush in January 1989 at a dinner in Austin held each winter before the Texas Legislature convened. Laura Bush and Hecht were there too.
It was a heady time. Bush’s father was inaugurated president that month. George W. Bush was in Texas assembling partners to buy the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Hecht had just been elected to his first term on the Texas Supreme Court. Miers was preparing to join the City Council.
“We spent an hour or so visiting with them at the dinner,” Hecht recalled.
Four years later, Bush decided to seek the Republican nomination for governor. Francis, the Dallas lawyer who advised Bush, asked Miers to be general counsel for the campaign team.
“I brought it up,” Francis said. Bush “told me to contact her. I did. She agreed. That was it.”
Bush’s gubernatorial prospects seemed chancy. Thinking of him as having presidential potential, Hecht said, was an even larger stretch. But Karl Rove, the Bush political guru, did. So did Miers.
But if she committed herself to Bush early on, he did not reciprocate until the fishing camp episode. That led to her promotion -- as Bush’s personal attorney.
Soon Bush was calling her for suggestions on judicial appointments. She was the first person to vet a young lawyer named Alberto R. Gonzales -- now the U.S. attorney general.
In 1995, Bush asked her to join the Texas Lottery Commission for a six-year term. The lottery was making an enormous amount of money -- it reported $3 billion in sales that year -- but to critics it was riddled with ineffective bureaucracy and cronyism.
“It was a thankless job,” Hecht said.
Miers held it for five tumultuous years.
In 1997, she helped fire the lottery’s executive director, a Democrat named Nora Linares, after it was revealed that Linares’ boyfriend had worked for the lottery’s primary contractor, GTECH.
Democrats believed that the lottery was becoming increasingly politicized and that Linares was targeted as one of Texas’ few remaining top officials with strong ties to the state Democratic Party. (Linares’ attorneys said she was formally cleared of any wrongdoing by the state. She later sued GTECH for interfering with her employment opportunities, winning a $750,000 settlement.)
Linares’ successor, Lawrence Littwin, was fired five months later after legislators complained he was reviewing their campaign contribution reports. Lottery revenue was dropping precipitously.
In March 2000, Miers abruptly resigned from the commission.
The White House says Miers cleaned house at the lottery; Charles Soechting, one of Linares’ attorneys and now head of the Texas Democratic Party, said that “when she left, it was in shambles.”
Miers also performed other duties for Bush. She reportedly was paid $19,000 to check out rumors that he was allowed into the Texas Air National Guard to escape the draft and the Vietnam War. She reportedly helped coordinate legal strategy for GOP lawyers dispatched to Florida during the prolonged 2000 presidential election recount.
There is no doubting she was loyal, the single most valued asset for any Bush insider.
When the Supreme Court stopped the recount, she moved to Washington with Bush.
Harriet Miers was born in Dallas on Aug. 10, 1945, the fourth of Harry and Sally Miers’ five children. Her mother called her the “perfect angel.” Others called her “Harry.”
She had three brothers and a sister. Her younger brother, Jeb Stuart Miers, 54, of Dallas, became a physician. Her other brothers are 62-year-old twins Robert L. Miers of Dallas and Harris Miers Jr. of Galveston, Texas. Her sister, Catherine “Kitty” Miers Zurier, died in 2003 at age 70.
Zurier “really made a mission of staying in touch with people and making sure she did whatever she could to be thoughtful and caring,” Harriet Miers said when her sister died.
When her father suffered a stroke, Miers, then a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, had to ask the school for financial assistance. She also took on work-study assignments and a job at Texas Instruments. Her father died nine years later. Miers, by then a promising new attorney, helped find a lawyer who straightened out her family’s finances.
“It was a horribly difficult time for my mother,” Miers later told the Dallas Morning News. “There’s no question that the family owes a tremendous debt to that lawyer. It was also a lesson that there’s power in the law.”
Miers’ mother eventually began showing signs of dementia and required her daughter’s care.
At 91, Miers’ mother lives in a Dallas nursing home. “The last year has been especially difficult,” Miers’ friend Simmons said. “One day she will be in good shape and the next day she won’t. But she does recognize Harriet when she comes home to see her.”
Robert Miers said their mother always had a “simple way” of taking care of the family, and now it was their turn to tend to her needs.
Harriet Miers’ heroine growing up was her mother. When Harry Miers had his stroke, Sally Miers went to work to save his faltering real estate business. Sally Miers had always known how to meet a challenge: Adapt, then work hard.
Sally had learned the lesson young, Robert Miers said: “Mom had to quit school in the fifth grade to take care of her younger brother because her mother was ill. And she never quit raising her family or teaching her kids. She taught us all how to spell, but first she memorized the dictionary herself.”
It was an example her daughter took to heart; friends and colleagues today say Harriet Miers is a workaholic, her red Mercedes already parked near the White House when most aides arrive and still there when they leave for the day.
At Hillcrest High School in Dallas, Harriet lettered in tennis and held class office. The yearbook described her as “efficient, sweet and sincere ... from what we hear.”
At SMU, she majored in math, then in 1970 graduated from the university law school.
Louise Raggio, 86, who worked her way through SMU law school at night, remembered Miers as one of a few female law students she tried to mentor. Raggio is a legend in Texas law; she pioneered legislation that secured a wife’s right to own property, start a business and secure a bank loan without the consent of her husband.
“She was one of the bright young law students,” she said. “By that time I think there were 10 women in that class.”
After a two-year clerkship, Miers became the first female lawyer at Dallas’ Locke Purnell Rain Harrell law firm. Twenty-four years later, her colleagues chose her as the firm’s first female president.
She came to the firm on the recommendation of Judge Joe Estes, for whom she clerked in Texas.
“She wanted to be a trial attorney, but none of the major firms would hire her,” said Jerry K. Clements, head of litigation at the firm, now called Locke, Liddell & Sapp. Her powerful patron changed the calculus. “When a federal judge says you need to hire somebody, you hire them.”
Opposing male lawyers tried to throw her off her game; judges could be condescending. But Miers was not a complainer, Clements said. “What she did was work harder than anybody else, and got her revenge in court.”
Her secret? She could be discreet, an asset that eventually drew the attention of Bush and other Texas political figures.
“Everybody knows she is a competent litigator, but you very rarely saw her in the press,” said Dallas lawyer Charles McGarry, a former judge.
Miers specialized in business litigation. She collected on notes for banks, defended insurance companies and fought on behalf of mega-companies like Microsoft Corp. She handled trademark infringement work for Walt Disney Co. and defended an insurer for the Catholic Church that was seeking to limit its portion of a judgment won by abuse victims of a Dallas-area priest.
Miers also represented the Anaheim Angels when they were owned by Disney, defending a breach-of-contract suit brought by a former infielder named Tim Harkrider, who played for the team’s Midland, Texas, minor league affiliate.
The ballplayer alleged he received improper medical treatment in violation of his minor league contract after an injury from a game in 1996. The case was quietly settled, the terms confidential.
“I don’t know if there was one case you could point to and say, ‘That was a defining moment in her career,’ ” said Miers’ former law partner Timothy Mountz.
Sometimes the results could have been better. Miers was local counsel for Security Life of Denver Insurance Co., which had been sued in Texas by policyholders claiming they were defrauded into purchasing “vanishing premium” life insurance policies.
After they were unable to get the case against the insurers thrown out, Miers and Locke Liddell were replaced, and the case was settled in 2000 for “tens of millions of dollars,” according to Fred Misko, the Dallas attorney for the policyholders.
“She had an untenable set of facts, and an untenable legal position,” Misko said. “We had a terrific case and a great judge. He had high personal regard for Harriet. He would smile at her and her arguments, and then overrule her.”
She also had to oversee the settlement of an embarrassing fraud suit brought against her firm by investors in a foreign currency trading company run by a former University of Texas star place kicker.
The firm agreed to pay a reported $22 million in April 2000 to settle allegations that some of the firm’s lawyers had allowed the football player to solicit investors even as he accrued huge losses. The football player was sentenced to prison.
But Miers was best known for her work outside the courtroom, as the first woman to head the Dallas and Texas bar associations.
She corralled managing partners of major firms to persuade lawyers to staff legal clinics in poor areas; encouraged alliances with minority bar groups; and helped launch an annual musical revue, called “Bar None,” to raise money for scholarships for minority students at the SMU law school.
Miers also challenged the American Bar Assn. when it endorsed Roe vs. Wade. She complained that each local and state bar should be able to vote on such a controversial position.
That was one of her first forays into the public policy arena, and it is being carefully dissected for clues to her bottom-line position on the abortion issue.
This article was reported by Times staff writers J. Michael Kennedy, Richard B. Schmitt, Sam Howe Verhovek and Tomas Alex Tizon in Dallas, Scott Gold in Houston, and David G. Savage and Richard A. Serrano in Washington, and was written by Serrano. Times researcher Lianne Hart and research librarian Vicki Gallay also contributed.