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Specter, White House at odds over Miers' views

'Privacy' issue spurs new debate

From Ed Henry
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said Monday that Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers told him in a private meeting that she believed the 1965 case of Griswold vs. Connecticut -- a landmark ruling establishing the right to privacy -- was "rightly decided."

However, after the White House took exception to Specter's comments, the Pennsylvania Republican late Monday released a statement saying that Miers later called him to tell him that he had "misunderstood" her answer -- and that she had not taken a position on either Griswold or the right to privacy, the legal underpinning for the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

Specter's carefully worded statement did not withdraw his comments about Miers discussing Griswold with him, nor did it offer a correction. However, the statement said the chairman accepted Miers contention "that he misunderstood what she said."

In Griswold, the Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law which made it a crime to provide contraception to married couples, ruling that such personal decisions between spouses were covered by a constitutional right to privacy.

Eight years later, when the court decided Roe vs. Wade, it used the same principle to extend the reach of the right of privacy in reproductive matters, striking down state laws criminalizing abortion.

Conservative critics of Roe take issue with the court's finding of a right to privacy, which is not specifically spelled out in the Constitution. In Griswold, the majority opinion held that the right emanated from "penumbras" in the Bill of Rights "formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance."

After meeting with Miers on Monday, Specter twice flatly and unequivocally told reporters that she declared her support for Griswold -- a position likely to upset conservatives already uneasy about her nomination.

"She said she believes there's a right to privacy (in the Constitution)," Specter said. "And she believes Griswold was rightly decided."

Specter, a supporter of abortion rights, said he believed Miers' position on Griswold would be "relevant, not determinative" of her views on Roe.

However, a White House official later disputed Specter's statements.

"She has not discussed specific cases with other senators. Today was no different," said the White House official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the private discussions. "My understanding is Senator Specter is going to correct his comments."

Specter then released a statement that stopped short of a correction:

"In their meeting this afternoon, Sen. Specter thought Ms. Harriet Miers said she agreed with Griswold v. Connecticut and there was a right to privacy in the Constitution. After Sen. Specter commented on that to the news media, Ms. Miers called him to say that he misunderstood her, and that she had not taken a position on Griswold or the privacy issue. Sen. Specter accepts Ms. Miers' statement that he misunderstood what she said."

Earlier in the day, after meeting with Miers, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, said she had "disavowed completely" a published report that two of her friends in Texas had privately assured conservative leaders that she would vote to overturn Roe.

"She said, 'No, nobody knows my views on Roe v. Wade,'" Schumer said. "She said, 'No one can speak for me on Roe v. Wade.'"

Reacting to Specter's statements about his conversations with Miers on Griswold, Jan LaRue, chief counsel for the conservative group Concerned Women for America, said she was puzzled because Specter has a reputation for being precise about constitutional law.

"It sounds like he's being gracious. I mean, how could he get that wrong? It sounds funny to me," said LaRue, whose group has raised sharp questions about the Miers nomination. "That's artfully worded, isn't it?

LaRue said she was baffled by the idea that there could have a miscommunication over such a seminal privacy case.

"This is going to be interesting to see how clearly she answers questions before the full committee, if we've already (seen) this kind of misunderstanding over something so simple," she said.

David Frum, a former speechwriter for President Bush who has been highly critical of the Miers nomination, said that the episode with Specter raises troubling new questions about her.

"I don't think that she is going to continue to be able to play this question both ways," Frum said. "It's remarkable and disturbing that James Dobson would be left with the impression Harriet Miers completely agrees with his position against Roe, and that Arlen Specter was left with the impression that she agrees with his position on Roe."

At a private meeting earlier this month with Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, a leading congressional foe of abortion rights, Miers declined to give a position on Griswold, according to Brownback, who expressed frustration about the lack of clarity.

"She did not take a position on it, nor did she say she would take a position on it, nor did she think it appropriate to have a position on it," Brownback said.

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