Wednesday, October 12, 2005

First Lady Enters Debate Over Nomination for Court; tries to bail Junior's butt out again.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 11 - Complaints about the qualifications of Harriet E. Miers to serve on the Supreme Court have generated an intense debate about whether she is a victim of sexism, with Laura Bush gingerly stepping into the fray on Tuesday.

"I think that's possible," Mrs. Bush said in a television interview, when asked if there was sexism in the criticism of Ms. Miers. "I think she is so accomplished, and I think people are not looking at her accomplishments and not realizing that she was the first elected woman to be the head of the Texas bar association, for instance, and all the other things."

Mrs. Bush made her remarks on the NBC News program "Today" with the president by her side. Mr. Bush described Ms. Miers, the White House counsel and a confidante, as "an extraordinarily accomplished woman" who has "broken the glass ceiling."

Ms. Miers was on the Dallas City Council and ran two bar associations and a large law firm before joining the Bush White House, and she was widely hailed as a trailblazer for women when Mr. Bush nominated her last week.

If confirmed, she would fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a crucial swing vote.

Ms. Miers's nomination incited the ire of many conservatives. Some criticized her lack of a clear record on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and others attacked her academic credentials and qualifications as insufficient to warrant a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.

Among the complaints are that Ms. Miers has never been a judge and never clerked at a federal appeals court or the Supreme Court (she did clerk for a federal district judge). In addition, critics say she lacks the kind of experience in constitutional law possessed by the last nominee, John G. Roberts Jr., now the chief justice.

The criticism has brought Ms. Miers some unlikely defenders, including liberal advocates for women's rights who are deeply uneasy with her nomination. Among them are Marcia D. Greenberger, founder of the National Women's Law Center, and Eleanor Smeal, the head of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Ms. Smeal, who 24 years ago supported the nomination of Justice O'Connor, said in an interview that she would have no problem opposing Ms. Miers if the nominee did not make her judicial philosophy on matters like abortion and sex discrimination clear. But she said she believed that Ms. Miers was being subjected to a double standard.

"I think that essentially that this hue and cry that she isn't qualified, there's a sexist basis to it," Ms. Smeal said. "Does she have the mental capacity? Give me a break. Would they say that about a man? I don't think they would."

Ms. Greenberger said she was particularly incensed by criticism of Ms. Miers's lack of clerkships. She said she and Ms. Miers, who is 60, graduated from law school at about the same time, when opportunities for women were few.

"There were many judges who would not accept women law clerks at all, including many federal judges," Ms. Greenberger said.

Concerned Women for America, a conservative group that has been deeply critical of Ms. Miers, sent an e-mail statement to its supporters on Monday saying sexism had nothing to do with its critique.

"We evaluate nominees on the same basis regardless of whether they are women or minorities," the memorandum, sent by Jan LaRue, the group's chief counsel said, adding that while the organization could not endorse Ms. Miers, "we remain open to persuasion."

According to the American Bar Association, women remain a distinct minority in the federal judiciary. In 2003, according to the A.B.A., 16.2 percent of federal district judges and 17.4 percent of federal appeals court judges were women. If confirmed, Ms. Miers would become the third woman to sit on the Supreme Court.

The debate over sexism has been an undercurrent running through her nomination since it was announced.

Ed Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee who is working with the White House to have Ms. Miers confirmed, was widely quoted as saying he detected "a whiff of sexism and a whiff of elitism" in the unease about her.

Then Senator Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, stepped in. "I'm shocked at the sexism and double standard coming out of the far right," Ms. Mikulski said.

But one prominent Republican lawyer in Washington who supports Ms. Miers said Tuesday that she did not see a double standard.

"I really don't think it's sexual," the lawyer, Betty Southard Murphy, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said in an interview, adding, "I think they would be bashing a man with the same background. It's equal-opportunity bashing."

At least one wingnutter said that there is no way that Miers could be one of them, because she is a single, professional woman. Naw, that ain't sexist....

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