INDIANAPOLIS | Hoosiers today know Dan Coats as their U.S. senator, but nine years ago his informal title was far more exotic — Sherpa.
Speaking recently to the Federalist Society of Indianapolis, Coats described his experiences guiding two of President George W. Bush's Supreme Court nominees through the Everest-like Senate confirmation process.
In 2005, Coats had been out of the Senate six years and just finished serving as U.S. ambassador to Germany when Bush's top adviser, Karl Rove, asked Coats to help Harriet Miers win confirmation to replace Sandra Day O'Connor on the nation's top court.
Bush's nomination of his White House attorney was an unusual selection, in part because she had no judicial experience. But Coats agreed to take a leave of absence from his law firm to bring Miers around to his former Senate colleagues and help make the case for her appointment.
Coats said Miers had "impressive credentials," being the first woman to lead the State Bar of Texas and then serving as a key aide to the president. On a personal level, Miers was a "very gracious, humble individual," Coats said.
However, that wasn't enough to prevent the Coats-described "firestorm" of opposition to Miers' nomination — on both sides of the aisle — from senators who didn't believe her knowledge of constitutional law and legal reasoning was Supreme Court-caliber.
"A lot of people saw Harriet Miers as someone who would be voting the right way, but not adding the intellectual heft and argument that would stand the test of time," Coats said.
He said "considerable political pressure" was put on Miers to step aside, and four weeks after receiving her nomination, Miers asked Bush to withdraw it.
Coats, on the other hand, was asked to stick around to help Bush's next nominee, New Jersey federal Judge Samuel Alito, win confirmation. It was an easier case to make, he said.
"I have not had the privilege of meeting a more brilliant jurist than Samuel Alito," Coats said. "His depth of character as well as his adherence to the Constitution and his demeanor, and the way in which he analyzed and came to his judicial decisions, was stunning."
Eighty-three of the 100 senators asked Coats for one-on-one meetings with the nominee. Coats sat beside Alito at each hour-long session and watched as the judge explained his legal philosophy, approach to the law and interpretation of past Supreme Court rulings.
"It was literally like taking a post-graduate course in constitutional law," Coats said. "Alito met every possible test in terms of experience and judicial acumen, his qualifications were beyond the ability of anyone to question them, and yet it was evident that storms were brewing in terms of trying to defeat his nomination."
Coats said Senate Democrats were concerned that Alito was too good at defending his conservative principles, and a lifetime appointment might make it more difficult to advance their policy goals.
The Bush White House responded by setting up a "war room" and running Alito's nomination like a political campaign.
Coats said having a front-row seat to that "was one of the most remarkable experiences in my life," but completely unnecessary. "We shouldn't have to do this with somebody bringing the kind of qualifications that he brought," Coats said.
In early 2006, Alito was confirmed 58-42. U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., the man Coats would replace in the Senate in 2011, voted no — as did U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Barack Obama, D-Ill. U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., supported Alito's nomination.
Coats said hugging Alito at the White House after the final votes were tallied was an unforgettable moment made more so by the significance of the accomplishment.
"When you reach the level of the Supreme Court, we want the very best: those that can make the case for the integrity of the Constitution, not as a living document that can be altered depending on society's whims, ... but as something that is one of the greatest gifts to mankind that has ever been brought forward," Coats said.