Jewish Groups Scramble to Learn What They Can About Court Nominee

Perhaps it was Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) who best summarized the American Jewish community’s position on Harriet Miers. “We know even less about this nominee than we did about John Roberts,” Schumer said Monday after President Bush nominated Miers, his White House counsel, to succeed Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the U.S. Supreme Court.

When Roberts was nominated to the high court in July — he later was promoted to chief justice after the death of William Rehnquist — most American Jewish groups said they would have to wait until his confirmation hearing before casting judgment, citing his limited judicial record.

Because Miers, 60, has never been a judge and has not weighed in on most controversial issues, her political and judicial philosophies are even less known.

“We’re in somewhat the same position as we were in with Roberts, in that the hearings will be very important,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism.

Two major differences between the nominations already have emerged. First, Miers lacks the universal praise Roberts received for his intellect and experience. Miers also would be replacing O’Connor, who served as the swing vote in many contentious issues since 1981, raising the stakes of the confirmation.

“This is the battle that is going to swing the court one way or another,” said Phyllis Snyder, president of the National Council of Jewish Women.

In the hours before the Jewish community broke for the Rosh Hashanah holiday Monday, analysts were scrambling to learn what they could about Miers. At the RAC’s Washington office, staffers were purchasing domain names for people to solicit potential questions for Miers to be asked at confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee. They launched similar Web sites seeking questions for Roberts over the summer.

“It is the responsibility of every generation to be true to the founders’ vision of the proper role of the courts in our society,” Miers said Monday. “If confirmed, I recognize that I will have a tremendous responsibility to keep our judicial system strong, and to help ensure that the courts meet their obligations to strictly apply the laws and the Constitution.”

Bush said Miers has the “talent, experience and judicial philosophy to make her a superb choice.”

“Harriet Miers will strictly interpret our Constitution and laws,” the president said. “She will not legislate from the bench.”

In the days before Bush decided on Miers, liberal Jewish organizations were quietly raising concerns that the nominee might be more conservative than Roberts. Several groups, including the RAC, decided not to oppose Roberts, reserving political capital to fight the expected conservative nominee for the O’Connor vacancy.

Miers’ nomination changes the game plan. Groups cannot oppose her out of the gate, as the NCJW did with Roberts, and will have to learn more before making an assessment.

“I think we all have to sit back and pause and see what we know about her and don’t know about her,” Snyder said. “We have to do our research.”

But it’s unclear where the information will come from. A former president of the Texas State Bar Association, Miers spent most of her career in private practice, and her work at the White House could be protected as privileged.

One tidbit has emerged: In 1992 Miers worked against an American Bar Association resolution supporting abortion rights. But reports said she did not speak to the merits of Roe v. Wade, only to the appropriateness of the lawyers’ group taking a stand.

Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, noted Miers’ reputation for integrity when she was chairwoman of the Texas Lottery Commission from 1995 to 2001. She is reported to have cleaned up an institution with a history of questionable practices.

“The deal with Harriet was, whatever was right was going to happen,” said Zeidman, who also is from Texas. “No compromise politically.”

Miers would not be an “activist” judge — either from the right or the left, Zeidman said.

“If she doesn’t fit the suit of the Republican right, that’s fine with me,” said Zeidman, one of the top Jewish contributors to past Bush campaigns.

Steve Gutow, a Dallas-based lawyer who recently became executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said he had met Miers several times in legal circles, but did not know her well. He said she had a reputation as a conservative, and was well regarded as a lawyer.

“My friends who knew her respected her,” he said.

Miers was recognized as a major presence on the Dallas scene because of her relationship with Bush. She received the Dallas ADL’s Jurisprudence Award in 1996 for her “commitment to democratic values that characterize America.”

Bush, who at the time was governor of Texas, and his wife attended the luncheon in Dallas as honorary chairpersons, and he described Miers there as a “pit bull in size six shoes.”

Marlene Gorin, community relations director for the Greater Dallas Jewish Federation, said Miers had been slated to join a civic leadership mission to Israel run by the federation in 2000.

However, Miers cancelled three days before the trip because her law firm had taken on a major case.

Gorin said Miers was remarkable for her lack of profile on issues affecting the Jewish community.

“She has absolutely no profile” on those issues, Gorin said.

JTA’s Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.

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