Early Reflections on Miers

The nomination of Miers will obviously generate a lot more information about the candidate than we have now, but from what’s out there so far, it’s typical of too many appointments in this administration generally: an insult to the institution and the public on grounds of the mediocrity of the candidate, and a callous mistreatment of the nominee herself. It’s insulting because it embodies the idea that a candidate of no real distinction is suitable for a high and important office as long as she doesn’t have a disqualifying scandal in her past, and it’s abusive of Ms. Miers because it sets her up for failure in a position whose duties are almost certainly beyond her. What is life really like for Justice Thomas, always a day late and a dollar short of the intellectual life of his workplace? Do the people who sent Michael Brown to do a senior manager’s job feel any guilt at the pratfall they set him up for?

Ms. Miers has no record of ever doing anything important except chairing a commission during a cleanup of a state agency in trouble (not, for example, being the executive director actually doing the cleanup). There are dozens of state lottery and gambling commissions and hundreds of members thereof in the last twenty years; what makes her special? The bar associations she’s headed are just two of hundreds, which again have had thousands of presidents. These positions are in themselves admirable and respectable, but convey no special distinction (at the level of this nomination for this job) whatever.

Otherwise, there’s not a book or an article or a bill or a program or an idea to her credit, just conventional lawyerly service to this and that client, the sort of thing thousands and thousands of partners in top law firms do every day. Except for failing to save Bush from himself and his bad lieutenants, she appears to have made no big difference to anything important, ever. At the same time, the buzz on her style (and it’s not much more than that, yet) is extreme formality and insularity, lack of forest-tree discrimination, and an inability to collaborate. The Supreme Court is a collegial environment, and ability to abstract and see the big picture background against which a given case is a figure would seem to be pretty important.

The quality that rings like a bell through her press notices is personal loyalty to George W. Bush. This is beyond irrelevance; it’s truly bizarre and troubling to offer it as qualification for Supreme Court Justice. Does W expect to be calling her up from time to time to dictate votes? Is she expected to decide cases for twenty years by guessing what that great legal mind W would want? If not, how could it possibly be a point of merit for this job?

Ms. Miers was the first woman to have various positions. This is to her credit, but among all the thousands of “first woman to do X”, not in and of itself a very big selling point. It should probably be discounted by her total lack of direct experience of what being a woman professional is for those who have children or even spouses. Miers may know something about sexual harassment and discrimination, but again, we’re talking about a job of which there are only eight others in the world. A professional woman’s perspective is a selling point for it, but for the most part, Miers’ is no more than second hand or observational.

Probably the most insolent quality of this nomination derives from her recent job experience, where her duties since 2001 have been as an inside, direct, advisor to the president, including a stint managing his access to information. In the current case, the idea that such a resume merits consideration for any high office is beyond satire and beyond ridicule, because this administration has a nearly unblemished record of taking bad advice, ignoring useful information, and making catastrophic choices on a steady and varied stream of international and national policies. Anyone suspected of being in the advisory chain that generated this record would seem to be flatly disqualified from any job involving good judgment or insight, at least on a prima facie basis.

There was a time when it was expected that the Supreme Court was a body of really special and distinguished legal thinkers, whether left- or right-flavored. Roberts was no shoo-in on this ground, but not outside the pale, and may well fulfil the promise of his career to date. Miers is not even in the ball park on any of the evidence we have so far.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.