Miers supporters have been defending her lack of overwhelming intellectual firepower by arguing that the Court needs more Justices with people skills. For example, Beldar says:
Dealing with partner-level lawyers requires tact, creativity, flexibility, judgment, listening and communication skills, the learned or intuitive ability to broker compromises, and finally (but not least importantly) a backbone of steel and the ability to display and occasionally use one’s own teeth and claws. The “people skills” expected of a managing partner, while perhaps particularly important for a Chief Justice in the context of the Supreme Court, are not unimportant for other Justices. The Chief Justice, simply put, has but one vote, and he is not always himself in the majority.
Defenders argue that the Court has been too splintered on too many decisions in recent years. What the Court needs, the argument goes, is a non-scholar with people skills, to bring everyone together.
The problem with this argument is that Miers hasn’t demonstrated much in the way of “people skills,” if you actually listen to people who have dealt with her on a professional level.
Here is a Dallas Morning News profile of Miers from July 1991, when she was serving on the Dallas City Council. It opens:
Depending on who is talking, there seem to be three women named Harriet Miers in Dallas.
One is the hard-nosed career lawyer, a partner in the Dallas firm of Locke Purnell Rain Harrell, who has just become the first woman president-elect of the State Bar of Texas. This Harriet Miers is a commercial litigator with a reputation for being tough, smart and shrewd. She is a tireless champion of the law, one who yearns to set society’s wrongs aright.
Another Harriet Miers is finishing her two-year term as an at-large member of the Dallas City Council. To her colleagues, she often comes across as dour, cold, uncompromising and uncommunicative — a maverick and a cipher.
And then there is the Harriet Miers her friends and family know, the one who seldom reveals herself to fellow council members. This one is warm, sensitive, humorous, loyal, the favorite aunt of everyone’s children. She is a model of self-sacrifice, a woman whose moral code will not allow her to act against her conscience.
Which is the real Harriet Miers?
The answer appears to be: it depends on the context. But in the work environment of the City Council, the quotes are not encouraging:
The vast difference in perception is most marked when Ms. Miers’ council career is the subject.
“I know her less today than I did the day after she was elected (in 1989),” says Jerry Bartos, a City Council colleague who frequently has been Ms. Miers’ opponent. “I’d say she is the consummate loner.”
“She’s independent. She’s a thinker, not a clone,” counters council member Al Lipscomb, who also has had run-ins with Ms. Miers.
“She’s a very independent thinker,” echoes Mayor Annette Strauss. But, in acknowledging Ms. Miers’ “loner” status, the mayor gives a Zen-like answer: “It is difficult — because the right answer is not right for everybody.”
. . . .
To some, however, she seemed to play the role of devil’s advocate. “There was no communication, no coalition,” Mr. Bartos says, citing Ms. Miers’ coolness toward fellow council members. “In politics, you have to build coalitions, and you have to communicate.” His blunt assessment of her effectiveness on the council: “Zero.”
Mr. Lipscomb says, more diplomatically, that Ms. Miers’ “toughness might have repulsed some of the men” on City Council. “She picks up on details. Nothing gets past her,” he says. “She’s not a person that you can predict — but that is her right.”
Sure, some of these people evidently were on the opposite side of the issues from her — but isn’t that when “people skills” become most important? The idea is to avoid alienating those people, so that you can persuade them to vote with you in the future, when your interests might line up.
Nobody would have called Bill Brennan a loner — not even his ideological opponents. Conversely, even the prickly Nino Scalia gets along fine with Thomas most of the time — but what good does that do?
The unpredictability mentioned by Mr. Lipscomb appears to have translated into indecisiveness and wavering:
Ms. Miers has a reputation for studying issues carefully before she votes. But she has switched her stance on some crucial issues, and council insiders perceived her moves as indecisiveness. Such key votes included the city’s stand on the Wright amendment; the public-housing desegregation lawsuit settlement; and Dallas’ recent, bitter redistricting battles.
But surely she has changed since 1991? It doesn’t sound like it from this August 2005 BusinessWeek profile:
Despite her influence, friends say Miers is shy and uncomfortable with small talk. Several colleagues from her days on the Dallas city council describe her as “a loner.” Democrats complain that Miers did not visit the Senate Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, during her first six months on the job. After learning of the perceived slight, Miers trekked to the Hill in late June to meet Leahy and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Folks, if you have signed on to this nomination because you think we finally have a Justice with people skills, I think you’re backing the wrong horse. Her friends apparently like her a lot, but she doesn’t look likely to become the Bill Brennan of the right, forging coalitions and building majorities.
My guess: she’ll become yet another Lewis Powell or Sandra Day O’Connor, finding a “middle ground” full of multi-part tests with subjective factors — test that are fully satisfactory to nobody but herself, but which garner 4 votes for this section and 4 votes for that one.
It’s only a guess. But it’s a guess based on the facts.