Searching for Justice Souter

September 11, 1990|By The New York Times

SIX WEEKS after President Bush introduced David Souter as his nominee for the Supreme Court, most Americans haven't a clue about his fitness for the highest bench.

Legal scholars of varied philosophy have been poring over some 200 opinions Souter wrote for New Hampshire's Supreme Court and other documents for signs of his political leanings, hints of ideology and evidence of judicial temperament.

The verdict is not in, nor can it be until after Souter testifies this week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The president picked a candidate of no national reputation to replace Justice William Brennan, one of the giants of the court.

Having pandered to right-wing calls for a less liberal-minded court, Bush now professes to know little about the legal views of his own nominee. This may avoid some political problems, but it's a stance of deniability better suited to covert action than appointments to the highest court.

The Senate, however, enjoys equivalent authority in this process. Indeed it has a duty to draw the fullest possible picture of Souter's character, credentials and qualifications with instructive and deliberate confirmation hearings.

Souter has a commendable educational record and a claim to distinction in a few areas of New Hampshire law. But it's ludicrous for the American Bar Association to adjudge this unknown judge "among the best available" Supreme Court candidates.

More appropriate was the judgment of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York: He's qualified, but the association "may wish to revisit" some areas of concern after he has testified about them.

Those include his views on privacy, individual liberty and equal opportunity, tender areas where the nominee's record is slim.

Committee members need to question the nominee fairly and fully and put him on notice that he will be asked to return to the stand to respond to the testimony of other witnesses.

David Souter may yet prove a suitable replacement for William Brennan, but the proof is in the hearings.

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