The Peter Principle at Work

Nearly 20 years ago, I sat in the great stone hall of a prestigious Midwestern law school with a couple hundred other students, listening to a speech by a professor from an even more prestigious East Coast law school. Among his many accomplishments, this man had been solicitor general of the United States (a position sometimes known as “the 10th Justice”), and it was well known that his greatest ambition was to sit on the Supreme Court itself.

As soon as he finished his talk, the hands of the two most obnoxious students in the law school shot into the air. Rather than calling on me, the speaker chose my classmate “Mary” (This was not her real name. Her real name was Ann Coulter). Mary made an aggressively confrontational political point, in the form of an absurdly complex question about a couple of obscure civil procedure cases.

When she had finished, the speaker hesitated for a moment. “Those are … problematic cases,” he began. I smiled inwardly. Having already seen many students (including, needless to say, myself) pretend to know more than they did under professorial cross-examination, I could tell that our distinguished guest was faking it. The difference between him and us was that within 10 seconds he had recovered his equilibrium and was deftly deflecting Mary’s question with a question of his own.

The Harriet Miers confirmation hearings promise to be a sort of morbidly amusing reality television program, in which a painfully overmatched nominee is subjected to a nationally televised oral examination, which she will have to fake her way through as best she can. Thus in the days before the hearings, Miers is being stuffed full of constitutional doctrine, like a goose whose liver is being fattened to make pate foie gras.

One of the myths of our legal system is that lawyers know “the law.” This is true only in a very loose sense. Before coming to Washington with President Bush, Miers spent her career doing a moderate amount of corporate litigation and a great deal of law firm and bar-related administration. There is little in her background that would lead one to expect that she knows much of anything about the sorts of legal issues that dominate the Supreme Court’s docket.

The White House keeps assuring the nation that this isn’t a problem, because Miers possesses a brilliant legal mind and can pick up what she needs to know on the job. The evidence for this assertion, however, is difficult to detect. Based on what little she’s published Miers appears to have difficulty writing coherent or even grammatical English. Sample sentence: “When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved.”

Miers’ writings are full of similar gobbets of verbal droning. Anyone who has worked in a large bureaucracy is all too familiar with these sorts of texts. They are the kinds of things typically written by faceless functionaries who are either unwilling or incapable of writing anything that doesn’t disappear into a haze of meaningless abstractions and ugly verbiage.

Indeed, the evidence about Miers all points in the same direction. She appears to be a tenacious bureaucrat who impressed George W. Bush with a level of personal devotion that could fairly be called abject. As a glance at the histories of, say, imperial China or 18th-century England reveals, emperors and kings had a fondness for such people that often led to their appointments to offices unsuited to their otherwise unremarkable talents.

As the Bush family dynasty enters its golden years, it’s perhaps appropriate that someone like Miers has been favored with what in a more genteel age was known as “royal preferment.”

(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)