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Bush pick described as advocate for the poor, former convicts

In Dallas, Miers fostered legal aid

DALLAS -- She hails from a conservative state and she works for a conservative president, but the Supreme Court nominee, Harriet E. Miers, is highly regarded in Dallas by colleagues from across the political spectrum, as a legal-aid pioneer who helped boost the fortunes of the poor and minorities and who aided former inmates seeking to rebuild their lives after prison.

As a lawyer at a high-powered corporate law firm, Miers supported minority scholarships, and promoted African-American and Hispanic representation in the local bar association, lawyers said. She also was pivotal in prodding big law firms to staff legal clinics for the poor, helping Legal Aid of North Texas and the bar association to provide regular help to low-income people in four local clinics.

''She's a humanitarian," said Chris Reed-Brown of the Dallas Volunteer Training Program, an effort of Legal Aid of North Texas and the Dallas Bar Association.

Before Miers made an aggressive effort to win commitments from big law firms to staff local legal clinics, ''we were always having to call around" to staff the clinics, Reed-Brown said. ''You cannot believe what a relief that was."

Miers also volunteered at the clinics, Reed-Brown said. She added that she could not remember specific cases that Miers argued.

Diane Ragsdale, a liberal Democrat and a former member of the Dallas City Council, said Miers was a bridge-builder at a time when the city was facing racial rifts over housing and City Council districting issues.

While other colleagues largely ignored Ragsdale's low-income, African-American district, Miers ''approached me, she actually reached out to me, and said, 'How can I help you improve the conditions of your constituents?' " Ragsdale said.

Miers, who encountered discrimination as a female lawyer early in her career, also has worked to strengthen opportunities for minority lawyers, said Tim Mountz, president of the Dallas Bar Association.

When Miers was president of the group, she started a revue with skits put on by lawyers as a fund-raiser for a scholarship program for minority students at Southern Methodist University Law School, Mountz said.

Further, Miers invited the presidents of the local African-American and Hispanic bar associations at the time to be advisory members of the Dallas Bar Association.

The leaders were later given full voting rights, Mountz said. ''She has always been very public service-oriented and community service-oriented," he said.

Lawyers and activists in both political parties also said that Miers, a Republican member of the Dallas City Council from 1989 to 1998, showed conservative leanings.

In a particularly nasty debate over the district lines, Miers initially favored a plan that would have had four of the council's 14 members elected citywide, as she was. Such a plan, minority group leaders said, would make it harder for African-American and Latino candidates to get elected.

But once Miers realized that a federal judge would not go for the plan, she backed a proposal to have all City Council members elected from enumerated districts, and became an ardent advocate of the idea, Ragsdale said.

''She was like the mediator; she listened to both sides. She was trying to figure out how she could bridge the gap," said Ragsdale, who now runs Inner City Community Development, a local economic development organization.

Miers also served on the board of a group called Exodus Ministries, a nondenominational group that offers housing, job assistance, and child care, as well as religious teachings, to former prisoners who seemed to be resolute on rejecting crime and accepting Christianity.

Miers, herself a devout Christian, continued to contribute to the organization after she left the board in the early 1990s, said a spokeswoman, Kristi Haithcock.

Miers was not seen as a supporter of gays and lesbians, and pointedly said during her City Council run that she did not want the endorsement of the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance, which screened candidates and asked them to fill out questionnaires stating their views, said Louise Young, a founding member of the organization.

Miers did fill out the questionnaire and added that she did not want to vitiate Texas's law banning sodomy, a statute that was later overturned as unconstitutional.

But Miers did voice support for funding AIDS research and treatment.

At the time, said Brad Luna of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, many considered AIDS to be a problem largely involving gay men, but Miers underscored that she considered the epidemic to be a ''total community" problem.

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