Randy E. Barnett: Alexander Hamilton wouldn't approve of Justice Harriet Miers





[Mr. Barnett is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Law at Boston University and the author of "Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty" (Princeton, 2004).]

During the Clinton impeachment imbroglio, Alexander Hamilton's definition of "impeachable offense" from Federalist No. 65 was plastered from one end of the media to the other. With the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, get ready for another passage from Hamilton to get similar play--this one from Federalist No. 76:

"To what purpose then require the co-operation of the Senate? I answer, that the necessity of their concurrence would have a powerful, though, in general, a silent operation. It would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity. . . . He would be both ashamed and afraid to bring forward, for the most distinguished or lucrative stations, candidates who had no other merit than that of coming from the same State to which he particularly belonged, or of being in some way or other personally allied to him, or of possessing the necessary insignificance and pliancy to render them the obsequious instruments of his pleasure."

Harriet Miers is not just the close confidante of the president in her capacity as his staff secretary and then as White House counsel. She also was George W. Bush's personal lawyer. Apart from nominating his brother or former business partner, it is hard to see how the president could have selected someone who fit Hamilton's description any more closely. Imagine the reaction of Republicans if President Clinton had nominated Deputy White House Counsel Cheryl Mills, who had ably represented him during his impeachment proceedings, to the Supreme Court. How about Bernie Nussbaum?

As the quote from Hamilton suggests, the core purpose of Senate confirmation of presidential nominees is to screen out the appointment of "cronies," which Merriam-Webster defines as "a close friend especially of long standing." Cronyism is bad not only because it leads to less qualified judges, but also because we want a judiciary with independence from the executive branch. A longtime friend of the president who has served as his close personal and political adviser and confidante, no matter how fine a lawyer, can hardly be expected to be sufficiently independent--especially during the remaining term of her former boss.

By characterizing this appointment as cronyism, I mean to cast no aspersions on Ms. Miers. I imagine she is an intelligent and able lawyer. To hold down the spot of White House counsel she must be that and more. She must also be personally loyal to the president and an effective bureaucratic infighter, two attributes that are not on the top of the list of qualifications for the Supreme Court.

To be qualified, a Supreme Court justice must have more than credentials; she must have a well-considered "judicial philosophy," by which is meant an internalized view of the Constitution and the role of a justice that will guide her through the constitutional minefield that the Supreme Court must navigate. Nothing in Harriet Miers's professional background called upon her to develop considered views on the extent of congressional powers, the separation of powers, the role of judicial precedent, the importance of states in the federal system, or the need for judges to protect both the enumerated and unenumerated rights retained by the people. It is not enough simply to have private opinions on these complex matters; a prospective justice needs to have wrestled with them in all their complexity before attaining the sort of judgment that decision-making at the Supreme Court level requires, especially in the face of executive or congressional disagreement....


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