Monday, October 03, 2005

HARRIET MIERS Reflections of a lawyer-politician Part 1 of 2

Joyce Saenz Harris THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS (DAL) Published: JULY 28, 1991

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 is elusive. For Harriet Miers essentially is a shy person with a protective layer of quiet, unassuming reserve.

Over time, she also has developed a lawyerly caginess that enables her to play her cards -- personal, political and professional -- very close to the vest. She weighs her words judiciously, seldom allowing an incautious phrase to escape. "People who see Harriet as a litigator don't see her tender, personal side,' says Nathan Hecht, a Texas Supreme Court judge and a close friend. "And family and friends don't see her going into the courtroom to duke it out.' 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.' For Harriet Miers in particular, two years in political office seemed to hold few right answers. She regards her council service, as she does most things in life, as an educational experience. But she admits it's been frustrating. "The most disappointing aspect about being in public office has been observing the impact of politics,' she say s. "You see decisions that are more political than what I might view as the right result.' Ms. Miers, 45, gives the impression she might have been happier if the City Council had worked more like a courtroom. She is most comfortable within the legal system, within its codified precedents and presentations of fact-based logic.

But on Dallas' City Council there were, as she puts it, "Eleven different people with 11 different agendas.' Personalities clashed, and questions of fact and logic often surrendered to raw emotion and ego.

As an at-large representative, Ms. Miers says, "I'm committed to make decisions based on the facts of the particular issue, and what I believe is in the best interest of the city.' She pauses, firmly setting her small, square jaw: "Not one part of the city, but the entire city.' "When she said she was running to represent all of Dallas, she meant it,' says Judge Hecht. "She took the job, viewing the people of Dallas as her client, and she tried to represent them all.' 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.' 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.

Two months ago, Ms. Miers publicly criticized the fact that council members fought to preserve their districts under the 14-1 plan. Her attitude, while idealistic, struck some observers as a bit naive. Says Mr. Lipscomb: "That is a political reality in all redistricting. The incumbents always try to protect themselves.' Ms. Miers reviews her own council term in typically dispassionate fashion. "I'd like to say I'm not doctrinaire,' she says. "I'm not going to be influenced by how my vote is perceived. "I want to be respected, and I want to be viewed as being true to my convictions,' she adds, her flat Texas drawl turning steely. "But I don't much care what people think. I can't afford to.' * She may never win the title of "Most Popular' on the City Council. But Harriet Miers' friends think she's wonderful. - The Rev. Ronald Key, pastor of Valley View Christian Church, says Ms. Miers is "not above doing the small things to serve others. She would come up Sunday mornings to make coffee for t he Sunday-school classes.' Ms. Miers has served on the missions committee and taught children's classes, and she continues to do pro-bono legal work for her church.

Other friends describe Ms. Miers as always kind, generous and thoughtful. "She's very low-keyed and puts the spotlight on others, not on herself,' says Ann Simmons, executive director of the Dallas Bar Foundation and a friend of Ms. Miers' for nearly two decades. "People will come to her for advice, and she is a good listener. "I've heard people say she's a loner,' Ms. Simmons adds. "That image comes from not jumping on the bandwagon with the majority, or with the most popular idea. She has th e courage to stand for her beliefs -- even if she's the only one standing there. "Harriet does not act on emotion, but on intellect. That's not to say she doesn't feel things deeply. But she's a very rational-type person.' Moreover, friends say, she serv es her profession and her city without self-aggrandizement and without regrets for the private cost such commitment exacts. "I don't think she'd expose herself to the rigors of public life unless she were doing it as an opportunity to express her persona l beliefs, her convictions and what's important in life,' says Rev. Key. "She has a very quiet, substantive way of expressing her faith.' "One of the great mistakes City Council made the last two years was to waste the time and energy of Harriet Miers,' says Charlene Howell, a friend and campaign worker. "There were so many things she wanted to do for the city.' Ms. Miers' City Council service has "taken a toll on her, I can tell,' says Ms. Simmons. "She has really given of herself. She sacrificed her personal life . . . but she keeps on hanging in there.' * She was born in Dallas at the very start of the baby boom, just before V-J Day 1945. Harris and Sally Miers had five children spread over some 20 years. Harriet Ellan was their fourth and a blond, "perfect angel,' her mother says. "She never disobeyed. Her mind was always open to instruction and learning,' Mrs. Miers says with pride. "There was no "teen-age' period with Harriet.' The family lived in North Dallas, and Harriet graduated from Hillcre st High School in 1963. Though she enjoyed athletics and lettered in girls' tennis, she was socially shy and unsure of her talents. "I never had the natural ability to be brilliant,' she says, self-deprecatingly. Yet she was a dedicated student who eventually earned a bachelor of science degree in mathematics at SMU. As a girl, she had dreams of becoming a physician. "Being a medical doctor was my view of the most service-oriented profession in which you could be involved,' Ms. Miers says, a little wistfully. "I really came out of high school believing I wasn't bright enough to be a doctor. Career days at high school, you just got no encouragement.' Much later, after she had become a lawyer, she realized she was indeed bright enough to have tackled medicine. But by then, she says, "I had so much invested in the legal education, I just - concluded it would be irresponsible to throw all that away.' Instead, she financially assisted her younger brother, Jeb Stuart Miers, in becoming a physician himsel f.

In 1964, Harris Miers had suffered a severely disabling stroke that left his wife, Sally, to pick up the pieces of his real-estate business. Meanwhile, Harriet completed her freshman year at SMU, but there was no money for her sophomore year. She had resigned herself to leaving college and taking a job at Texas Instruments. "My mother,' Ms. Miers says, "was so troubled by the fact that I was going to have to drop out that she called the school and explained the situation. The school officials at SMU were wonderful.' The administration put Harriet on scholarships, financial aid and a work-study job -- "so I got to go back.' Still, it "was a horribly difficult time for Mother,' Ms. Miers remembers. Mr. Miers was virtually helpless and, after he wa s released from the hospital, his wife cared for him at home until his death in 1973. The business, medical and legal issues surrounding Mr. Miers' disability were thorny and unfamiliar to his wife. "But she wound up finding a wonderful lawyer who was really her salvation, in terms of . . . being able to hold onto some of what my father had been involved in,' Ms. Miers says. "There's no question that the family owes a tremendous debt to that lawyer. "It was also a lesson,' she adds, "that there's powe r in the law.' * Her mother's struggle was one thing that pushed Harriet toward SMU Law School. Another was that none of her alternatives seemed very alluring.

Her work-study job had given her experience as a data processor in the fledgling computer field, but she wanted a "more people-oriented' career. She was qualified to teach, but found her student-teaching at W.W. Samuell High School "very sobering . . . I had some very bad experiences during that semester. "That left law school. So that's where I went.' Of the 140 students in her law-school class, she was one of perhaps a dozen women. She worked on the Southwestern Law Journal and Moot Court Board and pledged Kappa Beta Pi, a women's law sorority. She spent the summer of 1969 in San Francisco, clerking for the firm of famed trial lawyer Melvin Belli.

When she earned her law degree in 1970, the firm of Belli, Ashe offered her a job in San Francisco. But "family and people that I care about' kept her in Dallas, and for the next two years she clerked for Judge Joe E. Estes in U.S. District Court.employs nearly 200 lawyers.) Clerking for Judge Estes also got Ms. Miers interested in litigation. When she came to Locke Purnell, she was first put to work on corporate-law cases, which she didn't enjoy much. Then came some cases in commercial litigatio n, and it became her specialty.

Her success led the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers to name her its outstanding member in 1979.

Part of the reason Ms. Miers liked commercial litigation was her sense that it was a field where one could win cases on cold facts, - and "you're dependent less on theatrics.' Eventually, she found that "there is emotional involvement in commercial cases,' too. But she doesn't always need to perform with L.A. Law-style flair, since her cases -- which may involve corporations or individuals -- often are mediated or settled out of court. "I have never seen myself as involved in drama or talented as an actress or anything like that,' Ms. Miers says, referring to courtroom histrionics. "My older sister was involved with drama, and I've always drawn a comparision between the two of us . . . I don't believe I have an artistic bone in my body.' Still, her legal career has forced her to overcome her natural shyness, to develop a certain strait-laced combativeness that has carried over into her political life as well. "Harriet's a very persuasive speaker, and that's a colossal development in her career, ' says Dallas attorney Barbara Lynn. "She was very shy and soft-spoken. Now she's tough and quick on her feet.That was a struggle for her.' * Many friends and colleagues admire Ms. Miers for breaking down barriers in the legal profession: She was the first female lawyer hired by a major Dallas firm and, in 1985, the first woman president of the Dallas Bar Association. As the first woman president-elect of the State Bar of Texas, she now is preparing to serve as president in 1992-93.
PHOTO(S): 1. Harriet Miers at the offices of Locke Purnell Rain Harrell 2. Harriet Miers (1 2. DMN: Juan Garcia) 3. Harriet Miers with supporters during her '89 run for City CouncilCHART(S): Self Portrait: Harriet Ellan Miers (DMN)PHOTO LOCATION: 1. NR(C). 2. Oversize Photo File, 7 91. 3. Miers, Harriet.
1991 Copyright The Dallas Morning News Company


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