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Friends, family offer fuller picture of Miers

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DALLAS -- The sign on the red-brick gatepost says "Private" and warns visitors to the leafy cul-de-sac on this city's north side that an "armed patrol" will deal with loiterers.

"Private," friends and family members say, is an apt description for Harriet Miers, the owner of the red-brick ranch home behind the gatepost, a circular driveway, a "For Sale" sign and a large American flag. Despite her high-profile career as a Dallas lawyer and a second career as a counselor to President Bush, the 60-year-old Supreme Court nominee keeps personal details to herself like the "Southern lady she is," says longtime friend Merrie Spaeth.

Supporters of Miers, who are legion in her hometown, hope she will shed some of that modesty at her Senate confirmation hearings this fall. They say trumpeting her biography -- which includes public service, a life-changing conversion to evangelical Christianity and breaking down barriers for female lawyers -- should help Miers, who has never been a judge, to overcome doubts about her credentials.

"Right now, people are picking at things; they're not getting the full picture," says Elizabeth Lang-Miers, a Texas appeals court judge who is Miers' sister-in-law and a friend for more than 30 years. "When people get a chance to see her and hear from her, they're going to see what a remarkable person we've got here."

Some of the harshest critics of Miers' nomination have been conservatives such as commentator Pat Buchanan, who said Bush botched a chance to replace Sandra Day O'Connor -- one of six justices on the nine-member court who has backed abortion rights -- with a proven conservative who opposes such rights.

Though Miers belongs to an evangelical church that condemns abortion, it's unclear how her personal views would shape her decisions if she is confirmed to the bench. Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht, a longtime friend of Miers, says that he and other evangelical Christians "take oaths seriously. If you take an oath to judge fairly, then you're going to judge on the basis of the facts and the law, and not inject your religious beliefs into it.

"If you ask me whether (Miers') religious beliefs are going to affect how she judges, I'll tell you, 'That's how.'"

Harriet Ellan Miers was the fourth of five children, three boys and two girls, born to a Dallas real estate investor and his homemaker wife. The family lived in what is now Dallas' near north side, which in the 1940s and 1950s was home to the city's growing middle class.

Harriet, blond and petite, was a "doer" at Hillcrest High School but was not a member of an "in" clique, says Ron Natinsky, a Dallas City Council member who graduated with her in 1963. The senior class yearbook lists an array of activities -- Latin Club, yearbook staff, National Honor Society, captain of the girls' tennis team -- as well as service on a committee in charge of selecting non-denominational "devotions" read over the school's public address system each day.

Earlier career goals

Miers wanted to become a doctor but received no encouragement from school counselors, she said in a 1991 profile in The Dallas Morning News. She entered Southern Methodist University with the goal of becoming a teacher, and wondering whether she had the intelligence and perseverance to become a doctor, she confided in the profile.

Miers' world changed during her freshman year at SMU. Her father, Harris Miers Sr., suffered a debilitating stroke that left him unable to work. Harriet planned to drop out to help support her family, but a lawyer reorganized the family's finances, allowing her to finish school. She then began to focus on a career in law.

She aced law school at SMU, but finding a job in the early 1970s in the nearly all-male world of Dallas law was difficult. Back then, recalls SMU law professor Linda Eads, women bent on a legal career were viewed as radical feminists by some firms, and as hopeless romantics by others.

"Some were afraid women (would) ... leave and start families," says Eads, who interviewed at Dallas firms in the mid-1970s before taking a job in Washington, D.C. "Some were afraid we would stay, and (be) a threat."

Miers was hired at a midsize firm, now known as Locke Liddell Sapp, to practice business law and to try cases. She was the firm's first female lawyer. Darrell Jordan, a former Dallas Bar Association president who met her around that time, thinks Miers' personal attributes helped smooth her path.

"She's quiet, plain-spoken, direct but not in-your-face," Jordan says. "And she's the hardest worker you'll ever see."

Miers helped the firm build its client list, eventually handling cases for Microsoft, Walt Disney and other corporate biggies. She became the firm's first female partner, and was on her way to becoming its first female managing partner. Even so, friends and family members sensed she was unfulfilled. She delighted in fixing up friends on dates, but she did not get married. She tried a variety of religious experiences, including visits to Catholic and mainstream Protestant churches, Lang-Miers says.

Hecht, then a colleague at her law firm whom Miers was casually dating, told her of the solace he found as a member of a conservative Christian church. The pair discussed "God, life" and other issues for months, Hecht recalls.

One night, as they worked in the firm's offices, Hecht says Miers told him she was ready to accept Jesus Christ as her "Lord and Savior," and that she asked him in her soft Texas twang to "pray with (me)."

"It was something she felt ready to do. I was glad to be there," he says. "It was a prayerful moment."

Hecht took her to his church, Valley View Christian, a non-denominational congregation that, pastor Barry McCarty says, accepts the Bible as "God's true and direct word."

The church believes abortion is a violation of God's law and takes the "biblical view of marriage," McCarty says -- that it is meant to unite a man and a woman. It accepts capital punishment as biblically sanctioned. Miers, Hecht says, subscribes to these "traditional beliefs of evangelical Christians."

From Democrat to Republican

When Miers made her only run for public office in 1989, she revealed some of her views, says Lorlee Bartos, who ran Miers' successful campaign for Dallas City Council then. Bartos recalls Miers saying that she had once backed abortion rights but that a "conversion experience" had changed that.

Miers also underwent a more gradual conversion, from Democrat to Republican. Spaeth, White House director of media relations in President Reagan's first term, arrived in Dallas in 1985 and founded a communications firm. She and Miers became friends and co-founders of what Spaeth's late husband, Tex Lazar, jokingly called the "pushy broads' club" -- hard-charging professional women on the rise in male-dominated Dallas.

Miers, Spaeth says, was notable for never indulging in backbiting or humorous putdowns -- unless she was the target. "I used to joke, 'Hey, you know all the legal precedents from the last century because that's when your clothes were designed,'" Spaeth says. "That kind of thing, she would laugh at."

Soon, Spaeth noted, Miers began to upgrade her wardrobe with "clothes that commanded respect."

Miers stepped down after a two-year term on the Dallas council, and focused instead on legal politics. She had been the first woman elected president of the Dallas Bar Association, and in 1992 she became the first woman elected to head the State Bar of Texas. Her tenure was marked by a failed attempt to persuade the American Bar Association to rescind its endorsement of abortion rights. The ABA should be neutral, she argued.

Darrell Jordan, an ex-Texas Bar president who backs abortion rights, worked with Miers and was surprised to learn later that she opposed abortion. Miers, he says, kept her views to herself.

She began working for Bush in 1993, as he prepared his first run for Texas governor. Miers, now White House counsel, often returns to Dallas on weekends.

On a recent trip, she took friends to dinner and attended a nephew's football game. She then visited her 91-year-old mother, Sally, at a long-term care facility, said former pastor Ron Key.

Before returning to Washington, she attended Sunday worship at a hotel with Key and about 150 other evangelicals who recently left Valley View Christian Church to form a new church. Miers and the others left Valley View because they objected to changes designed to attract younger members, Key says.

Key and McCarty, Valley View's new pastor, say they are praying for Miers' confirmation to the nation's highest court.

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