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Before Bush, U.S. Judge in Texas Was Miers’ Hero

Times Staff Writer

When U.S. District Judge Joe Estes of Dallas died on his 86th birthday, they held his funeral at the Highland Park United Methodist Church. His former law clerk Harriet E. Miers gave the eulogy.

“The verdict is sure and unanimous,” she said. “Judge Estes was a great man.”

Estes was Miers’ first mentor, her hero in the law, the role model who changed her life after her father became seriously ill and before she was drawn headfirst into the world of George W. Bush. For two years, she served as his law clerk at the federal courthouse in downtown Dallas.

But she knew Estes for two decades, continuing to immerse herself in his family as well, growing ever closer to his wife, a mystery-book author; his son, a Houston lawyer who had clerked for a Supreme Court justice, and his daughter, now a university professor in California.

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Most mornings, Miers met Estes at his ranch-style home in Dallas. They would climb into his white Ford and, Miers at the wheel, head down the circle drive and off to the courthouse. She spent lunchtime with him at a downtown diner, or sometimes at the more fashionable Dallas Club.

On his birthdays, Miers sent greeting cards. She turned up in family photographs. With the judge in retirement, suffering from Alzheimer’s and other ailments, she dropped in for visits, usually with a gift or two in hand.

Estes prized loyalty from his clerks, and in Miers he got it -- much as Bush did as governor of Texas and now as president.

As Bush’s nominee to the Supreme Court, Miers has been effusive in her praise of the president. She has called him “brilliant” and a “genius” and showered him with greeting cards.

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“She was extremely loyal to the judge,” said Tom Murto, a Dallas attorney who clerked for Estes along with Miers. “That was just part of her character; that’s where all that began. She came to believe that if you’re going to continue working for somebody, you’re going to be loyal to them.”

Joe Ewing Estes came from East Texas. He built his law career as an oil and gas litigator and was appointed a federal judge in 1955. He was a conservative “Eisenhower Democrat” in a state where Republicans were scarce.

Estes took the bench on the second floor of the courthouse off Pearl Street when Miers was 10 years old. Soon afterward he approved a school desegregation timetable, and was barraged with threats and hate mail.

Opponents hung an effigy of Estes at a downtown intersection. The head and hands were painted black, with splotches of red paint to signify blood. “A terrible way to die,” warned the sign on the effigy.

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The judge got an unlisted phone number.

When Miers was a student at Southern Methodist University, Estes heard a case involving the mail-order rifle that Lee Harvey Oswald had used to kill President Kennedy. The assassin’s widow was trying to get the weapon from the National Archives to sell it to a Denver oilman for as much as $45,000. The judge ruled that the government should keep the rifle.

When Miers went to work for Estes in 1970, she was the second woman he had selected as a law clerk in an era when female lawyers were as rare as Texas Republicans.

The first, Fairy Rutland -- now a state government lawyer in Austin -- was one of three female law students in a class of 100 at the University of Texas. “The judge was kind of on the cutting edge of opening the doors for young women lawyers,” Rutland said. “He gave people like me and Harriet a great opportunity.”

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Miers and those who clerked alongside her recalled less about the cases they researched than the education Estes dispensed.

“Judge Estes was like a demanding grandfather,” Murto said. “He would tell us about his past career and developments and changes in the law.” When he brought a clerk along for a noon meal, Murto said, “you learned a lot.”

Howard Tygrett, now a state judge in Kaufman, Texas, said Estes had inspired him to become a judge.

Donald Griffis, a lawyer in San Angelo, Texas, said Estes had a special affection for Miers. “She would have been his favorite of the law clerks,” Griffis said, “because of her ability and her common sense and her ethic. Harriet would just work so diligently, and she was always appreciative.”

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Estes was dismayed that none of the Dallas firms wanted to hire a woman. So when Miers’ clerkship came to an end in 1972, he contacted the prestigious Locke Purnell firm. Miers was hired.

“I remember my dad talking about how much he learned about discrimination against women,” said Carrol Estes, a health policy professor at UC San Francisco. “He really got it when Harriet couldn’t find a job.”

In her eulogy for the judge -- a tape of which was provided by Estes’ son, Carl -- Miers recalled that he had to do a good bit of badgering to get her hired, finally convincing the men at the firm that “she works hard, she works late and she takes things home.” Miers added, “Whatever he said worked.”

She went on to head the Dallas Bar Assn., as Estes had. She became president of the state bar, a position he had been about to assume when he was picked by President Eisenhower for the federal court. Both were workaholics. And they enjoyed each other’s company.

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Well after her clerkship, Miers could still be found at the Estes family dinner table on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. She lived a mile away, which made visiting easy, especially as the judge grew older.

Carl Estes said that “she became more a part of our family than most people would. She was a single woman, and the one thing I remember most about her was her loyalty. I guess it’s like the old saying, ‘If you have a daughter, you have a daughter for life.’ ”

By the late 1980s, the judge was afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Miers’ face was one of the last ones he recognized. He died in 1989, the year she won a two-year term on the Dallas City Council. By then she also was running the law firm.

Five years later, Miers found a new mentor when she went to work as general counsel in Bush’s successful campaign for governor in Texas.

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This month, when Miers submitted answers on a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire examining her qualifications for the Supreme Court, she listed Estes as among her greatest influences.

She said he “helped to instill in me” the importance of judicial independence.

“He decided every case according to the law and facts, and he did not worry about the potential for a negative reaction to his decisions,” she told the committee.

“He felt no pressure to please anyone. His only lodestar was the law.”

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Times researcher Vicki Gallay in Los Angeles contributed to this report.


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