WASHINGTON -- Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, yesterday offered an unusual defense of Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers, saying her critics had put together ''one of the toughest lynch mobs" he had ever seen.
''What you've had here on Harriet Miers is not a rush to judgment. It's a stampede to judgment," Specter said on the ABC News program ''This Week."
Miers was being attacked by ''one of the toughest lynch mobs ever assembled in Washington, D.C., and we really assemble some tough lynch mobs," Specter said.
Specter's remarks amounted to a tacit rebuke of conservatives. Also, they were significant because last year conservatives delayed his ascension to the helm of the Judiciary Committee, which considers federal judicial nominees before the full Senate votes on confirmation, because they were concerned he might not be sufficiently steadfast in supporting President Bush's future Supreme Court choices. Specter favors abortion rights, and has promoted embryonic stem cell research, positions that have angered many conservatives.
Bush nominated Miers last week to succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The nomination of Miers, Bush's White House counsel and formerly his personal lawyer in Texas, provoked charges of cronyism as well as concerns among religious conservatives that she may be too moderate on social issues such as abortion rights.
Specter stopped short of saying whether he would support Miers and expressed concern about her limited experience with issues of constitutional law. As a lawyer in Texas, she mainly focused on business disputes.
Specter said he would question Miers about her qualifications and her views on issues, including the role of precedent in the judicial process, when the Judiciary Committee he heads takes up the nomination. He said it would be inappropriate to ask Miers whether she would uphold Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that gave women a constitutional right to an abortion.
Miers's supporters continued to paint her as a conservative with an open mind who would approach legal problems on a case-by-case basis.
The Senate Republican whip, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, predicted ''rock solid" support for Miers among Senate Republicans. ''I haven't sensed any discontent of any consequence," he said on CNN's ''Late Edition."
Nathan Hecht, a Texas Supreme Court justice and a longtime friend of Miers who has been speaking out on her behalf over the last week with the support of the White House, said that while Miers had long opposed abortion she would set aside her personal views when deciding cases. ''Legal issues and personal issues are just two different things," Hecht said on ''Fox News Sunday."
But Gary Bauer, head of American Values, a conservative advocacy group, and a critic of the nomination, said on the same program that conservatives would be disappointed if that were the case. ''If he wants to reassure his fellow prolife conservatives, that's the last argument he should be making," Bauer said.
Other conservatives condemned the selection, saying that Bush had missed an opportunity to steer the court firmly to the right with a replacement for O'Connor, who has been the swing vote in cases before the court that are of profound interest to social conservatives.
But Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said he trusts President Bush. ''He picked a person he's known for 15 years, and I believe he picked her because he knows her that well and he knows that she will vote the way he would want her to vote," Land said on NBC's ''Meet the Press," adding that ''given the right case," he believes Miers would vote to overturn Roe.
Democrats expressed concern about reports that the White House may have obtained assurances from Miers that she would take conservative positions, including against abortion, if she were confirmed, and announced plans to investigate as part of the confirmation process.
A conservative activist, James Dobson, head of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based advocacy group Focus on the Family, and a supporter of Miers after initial misgivings, has said that he had conversations with White House adviser Karl Rove about Miers and has said that he knows things about her ''that I probably shouldn't know."