Patterico's Pontifications


Miers: A Loner Lacking in People Skills

Filed under: Judiciary — Patterico @ 2:00 pm

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.

10 Responses to “Miers: A Loner Lacking in People Skills”

  1. As always, I thank you for the link and generous quote!

    There are, of course, different kinds of “people skills” than just back-slapping, joke-telling, life-of-the-party skills. Sometimes those who aren’t convivial are nevertheless extremely effective among, and therefore respected and advanced in prominence and responsibility by, their peers. Sometimes those who are convivial are unable to convert that into influence: Justice Scalia and Justice Ginsburg, by their own emphatic and consistent accounts, are great friends, each of whom almost never attracts the other’s vote.

    One of the things I pointed out about managing partners is that to be effective, they have to be willing to show, and occasionally use, claws and teeth, and to have backbones of steel. This is also true of city councilmen — with every vote, someone’s pleased, someone isn’t. Sent by Governor Dubya to clean up the Texas Lottery Commission, Ms. Miers did quite a bit of housecleaning, leaving behind a slew of broken toes and deposed petty satraps along with a wholly reformed moneymaking engine of state school finance. (I cannot for the life of me figure out why some people point to this particular credential as a basis for their mockery!)

    We each must form our own opinions. And if we lack personal access to the nominee (as we almost all do, except of course for the person who nominated her), then we must choose whether to rely upon facts, or upon others’ opinions, or some combination of them.

    I only give weight to others’ opinions when I have a particular reason to trust such others’ judgments. I can’t say that I have such a reason with respect to any unnamed source — in fact, I tend to distrust such judgments precisely because they come from sources unwilling to go on record. Nor am I familiar enough with any of the named sources you quote, my friend, who’ve cast doubt upon Ms. Miers’ “people skills.” But I wonder whether they have scars on their hides in the shape of Ms. Miers’ claws or teeth.

    And apparently you and I have very different weights that we accord to Dubya’s judgment; that’s okay, I respect that.

    But the objective, indisputable facts are that Ms. Miers was elected managing partner of her law firm by the partners with whom she’d practiced her whole career; that she was elected president of the Dallas Bar Association by its members after she’d been active in it; that she was elected president of the State Bar of Texas by its members after she’d been active in it; and that she was elected to an at-large seat on the Dallas City Council in a city-wide election.

    Thus, in forming my own opinion on the question of whether Ms. Miers has ample “people skills” to be effective among her peers, I find these objective facts considerably more compelling than the anecdotal opinions of the named and unnamed sources you’ve quoted, my friend. But that’s just me.

    Beldar (22d2bb)

  2. Conversely, even the prickly Nino Scalia gets along fine with Thomas most of the time but what good does that do?

    Not much, obviously, as Thomas is a big boy who would generally do the right thing anyway. However, I think it’s pretty safe to say that an equally conservative, but less prickly Nino Scalia would have gotten along better with Justice O’Connor from the beginning, and that might have done wonders to stunt her “growth” in office.

    [Doubt it, but regardless, you seem to have missed my point, which was: if you believe that, Miers should not be your pick. — Patterico]

    Xrlq (5ffe06)

  3. Patterico,

    In one post you say the danger is that HM will be a compromiser. In another you say it is that she is so uncompromising. Hmm, my friend.

    You are getting very one-sided in your selection of details on this issue, albeit driven by a genuine, even noble, concern. And the thing is, you may well be right, too…or you may be wrong. But, either way, you are nonetheless not helping your cause:

    Bush couldda gone, for ex, with Clement or some such, had he wanted a squishier moderate who was confirmable. There are many such choices.

    He didn’t. This tells us something of first-order significance. Cuz throughout his presidency, the man has remained very firm in his core views and habits, be it the WOT or the tendency to overspend. Good or bad, agree or disagree, the man sticks to his beliefs and does not compromise them regardless of the flack he takes.

    With judges, prior to this, he nominated only the best, and stood by them as long as he could. So … did he suddenly have a totally out-of-character inconsistency, or was he trying to get the most constructionist/conservative candidate on the court that he could, RINOs notwithstanding?

    The latter seems a hundred times more likely, doesn’t it? Doesn’t mean he got it right – still too early to tell, IMHO – just that he’s really trying. That has significance as to how you should respond.

    HM is – sorry if some of my pts just repeat those I made on prev threads, btw – an Evangelical, Bush’s personal lawyer, pro-abortion, and even supported criminalizing gay sex. So why are the D’s kinda sorta supporting her? I mean, what’s the real reason? She should be their anti-Christ, no question. She’s even from Texas!

    I think the real reason for the D response is cuz they messed up, plain and simple, in recommending her and Bush pounced on their mistake. And they don’t dare oppose her openly, at least not yet, cuz that’d rally R’s around her and force thew D’s to threaten a fb fight against their own recommendation; they know they’d lose that one.

    So for now we’re seeing a talk-her-up/vote-her-down approach. They really need the R’s to kill this one for them, cuz they fear just as much you do. They further fear what their base will do to them if HM gets confirmed and turns out to be everything Bush says she is.

    And, I suspect, they also fear trying to stop someone like Luttig from replacing RBG after that, cuz, like, what will their arg be: HM had the credentials but Luttig doesn’t?

    If HM’s nomination were to progress, the D’s’d come under increasing pressure to eventually fb. And they’d lose if they did. Even if the RINos refused to break a fb over HM herself, Bush could offer a trade to them – they’d be under a lot of pressure in such a circumstance – and say, sure, break the fb and I’ll withdraw HM and nominate Luttig instead.

    None of which makes HM a good or a bad nominee, per se, and you should absolutely make up your mind on her regardless of the political strategy.

    I’m just saying that premature opposition, before all the facts are in, not only makes your own args look weaker – and it does – it takes the pressure off the D’s, pressure that could help to end fb’s. It makes Bush the bad guy, reducing his influence, and strengthens the RINOs.

    Now is the time to gather information, to demand detailed answers from HM to q’s that will help define her judicial philosophy. That would be useful.

    Attacking her too loosely at this time is counterproductive. Bush chose her – see my reasoning above – cuz he thought she would be more conservative, not less, consistent with all his other judicial choices. He will withdraw her only if he believes she will not be that.

    Empty attacks on her personality as too compromising, or not compromising enough, miss the mark and will not be persuasive. And they only help the D’s keep the fb on the table, which is, after all, the root of the whole problem, isn’t it?

    I think if you & I had sat down in a room beforehand and picked a nominee, we’d’a had no trouble agreeing. But I also think you are firing your guns too soon in your current attacks on HM. She may or may not be “the one” for the court. But the best strategy I can see, regardless whether or not you tentatively oppose her, support her, or are undecided, is to gather info for her real confirmation battle, and let the pressure build on the other side in the meantime; see what you learn.

    ras (f9de13)

  4. Patterico,

    Oh, and btw, I meant to say HM is “anti-abortion” above, not “pro-“. Thick as a brick some days, aren’t I? Would you mind changing it if you get a chance. Thx if you can.

    [Can’t from the Treo, nor can I post an independent comment. But let me jump on yours to note that I don’t endorse the idea that the ability to compromise is an important attribute for a Justice. But for those who *do* see a value in people skills and forging compromises, I’m noting that there is no evidence that Miers has these attributes. There I no inconsistency there. — P]

    ras (f9de13)

  5. I’m noting that there is no evidence that Miers has these attributes. There I no inconsistency there.

    Fair enough. There is no compelling evidence for or against this attribute.

    But doesn’t that also argue for a “more info, pls” attitude, in accord w/the strategic reasons I give above?

    ras (f9de13)

  6. It seems like you’re being a little bit harsh, even people with excellent people skills may rub certain people the wrong way. Now it’s certainly possible that Miers does not have good people skills, but the single data point, against what appears to be innumerable others seems like a weak case.

    Joel B. (31d860)

  7. Why do I keep getting comments from people saying I haven’t provided facts? This post has facts. Granted, the facts are that certain people have opinions about her — but when you’re assessing “people skills,” people’s *opinions* about you are sometimes the most important *facts* out there.

    I didn’t write the article. I just linked it.

    Also, ras, in case you missed my piggyback comment to your previous post (that’s the only way I can leave comments from the Treo), I don’t go for this compromise stuff. But for those who do, the *facts* in this post (that many people say she lacks people skills, is a loner, or has otherwise handled political situations badly) should give you pause.

    And Beldar: so you’re saying that if politicians can get elected, that proves they have good people skills? Not sure I’d sign on to that. It just means they know how to get elected. Not quite the same thing.

    Patterico (5abeae)

  8. Patterico,

    All facts give me pause, good or bad. And a compromising Justice would be a poor Justice indeed.

    But I do think that Bush selected HM – based on Bush’s long documented pattern – because he thinks she will be a constructionist. And since the D’s know no more about her than he, that means they are merely in a holding pattern for now, pre-attack, while they hope that R’s do the job for them. This is the basis of my timing concern.

    Further, Bush can be persuaded to withdraw this nomination only if he can be convinced HM is not actually a constructionist and that he misjudged her in that regard.

    Anyway, I respect your opinion. If I were Bush, I would withdraw the nominee and replace her with someone like JRB. Fight the good fight and all that, and I think the good guys’d win in the end.

    But if it were gonna be that easy, Bush wouldda done it already. Right or wrong, he’s an experienced and successful infighter who sized up the situation and chose HM as the best that he could get. Doesn’t mean he was right, or wrong, but it is an opinion that deserves respect.

    So if you’re gonna win the battle over HM as well as the war over fb’s, it will be tough. Conservatives will need to play every advantage they’ve got, which leaves no room for timing errors, misinterpretations or internecine args that might be avoided.

    If you were to write a list of your top 10 detailed q’s by which to define someone’s judicial philosophy, q’s that a nominee could answer in hearings, what would they be?

    ras (f9de13)

  9. Unlike that cheery lovable Justice Bork??

    Florence Schmieg (a1e126)

  10. […] So who do we have since Miers took over, anyway? Only one- James Payne, to a seat on the 10th Circuit. Good job Harriet, nearly nine months into the job and you finally get a single nominee off your desk. Not really helping much to disprove her reputation as slow and indecisive or making the rumors that Andy Card thought she was incompetent and wanted her out of her job as secretary (a position that reports to him, but from which he cannot fire her due to her friendship with the President), now does it? […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » Still Want to Defend Bush Based on his Judicial Selections? (421107)

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