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Miers hitting the books in advance of confirmation hearings

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WASHINGTON - While other Americans enjoy an early fall weekend, Harriet Miers faces the homework assignment from Hades: hour upon hour of preparation for confirmation hearings that could make or break her hopes for a seat on the Supreme Court.

The process starts with a 12-page questionnaire seeking details of her professional life, her finances and anything else that might shed light on her qualifications.

When that's done early next week, she can turn her attention to a half-dozen thick briefing books on the most contentious constitutional issues before the court. By the time Senate hearings start in late October or early November, Miers will have completed a crash course in constitutional law.

White House officials and others who are familiar with her preparations said she'd paid little attention to the furor over her nomination while concentrating on the task at hand. They dismissed speculation that she might heed calls from some conservatives for her withdrawal.

Supporters expressed confidence that Miers' appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee will quiet critics who question her qualifications for the nation's highest court. But they acknowledged that any embarrassing mistakes by the nominee could doom her chances.

"One thing that characterizes Harriet is that she is extremely diligent. She's going to be prepared," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a committee member. "The temptation will be great for some to try to match wits with her on constitutional issues. There's some danger that senators might demonstrate not her lack of knowledge, but their own."

Miers will go before the panel about a month after Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. faced the same committee. The timing is both a blessing and a curse for her.

Miers, a former corporate lawyer in Texas, has nowhere near Roberts' experience with constitutional law, so he's a tough act to follow.

But she also gained some advantages by going second.

As White House counsel, she was directly involved in preparing Roberts for his confirmation and watched the hearings closely.

"The great benefit of this hearing is that we just went through it. It had to have helped her," said David Leitch, a former deputy White House counsel who helped prepare Roberts. "You've got a whole transcript to see what people are interested in. It's an excellent road map."

Roberts' experience also offered guidance on the kinds of questions that Miers can dodge, including any related to how she might vote on abortion or other politically charged issues. Roberts' refusal to answer tough questions frustrated some committee Democrats but helped him avoid controversy.

Although Miers is still in the early stages of her preparation, plans call for her to participate in question-and-answer sessions with top constitutional lawyers after she digests the briefing books. Those informal sessions will evolve into more formal "murder boards," relentless grillings that more closely resemble confirmation hearings.

Roberts wasn't videotaped during his practice sessions, but Miers might be. Some White House officials worry that her quiet, low-key approach may need to be pumped up for television.

The practice sessions, Washington's version of moot court for law school students, have taken on more importance since the defeat in 1987 of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Although Bork was considered a brilliant lawyer, even by some who disagreed with his conservative views, he flopped as a hearing witness.

Former Reagan White House Counsel Arthur Culvahouse, Bork's handler, has said his biggest regret from those years is his failure to prepare the nominee for the partisan hostility he experienced. Officials in the Bush White House are determined to avoid the same mistake with Miers, who could face tough questions from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

"A good performance by her in the hearings will seal the deal," said Washington lawyer Christopher Bartolomucci, another participant in Roberts' preparation.

By all accounts, Miers is well aware of the stakes.

"She knows the hearings are an important part of the process," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. "She'll be ready."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


(C) 2005 Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.. All Rights Reserved

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