WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee finishe five days of hearings yesterday on Supreme Court nominee David H. Souter, ending as it began -- with emphasis on the hot issue of abortion.
Again, a witness used the future of abortion rights as the reason for urging senators to reject Judge Souter. But this time, the complaint was that the New Hampshire jurist "does have a permissive attitude on abortion" and could not be counted on to help abolish altogether the constitutional right to end a pregnancy.
The complaint was registered by Howard Phillips of Vienna, Va., chairman of the Conservative Caucus -- the final witness among the 41 who testified following Judge Souter's three days at the witness table.
Calling Judge Souter "an accomplice to abortion," Mr. Phillips recalled that the nominee had voted in 1973 to permit abortions at the Concord Hospital, where he was a member of its board of trustees; had done nothing to stop abortions there over the following 12 years; and had not repudiated that act in his testimony this week or last.
When Judge Souter voted as he had back then, the witness argued, he "voted for policies which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of unborn children. . . . I find it rather chilling that Judge Souter was not willing to say [before the committee] that abortion was morally repugnant to him."
Although asked repeatedly for his views on abortion as a constitutional and as a personal moral question, Judge Souter never replied, saying that the issue was likely to keep coming before the Supreme Court and that he did not want to "mislead" anyone about how he would handle the issue.
Mr. Phillips bristled when Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told him that, just the day before, a group of leaders of women's rights organizations had taken the same position as he had: that the Souter nomination should be rejected because of "very powerful feelings" on the subject.
Those organizations asked the committee to turn down Judge Souter because his silence in response to questions about it gave no assurance that he thinks the issue is settled constitutionally.
Mr. Phillips pointed out the difference: "Their position is that they are not absolutely certain Judge Souter is going to vote their way. I am absolutely certain, based on the record, that Judge Souter does have a permissive attitude on abortion."
As the hearings ended, Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., noted that the hearings after Judge Souter had left the stand had sometimes become "very contentious," and he said that was to be expected because the court is now so closely split on many issues that "this justice will impact in a way that few others have."
The senator said that he could "see fear" in the eyes of many witnesses, "a fear that what they hold dear is in jeopardy."
Although the committee has not yet set a firm date for a vote on Judge Souter, the chairman said it probably would be next Thursday.
Lobbyists working the corridors outside the committee's hearings have said they had doubts, at this point, that any member of the 14-senator committee would vote against Judge Souter.
Senate sources have said that a final vote in the full Senate could come within a week after the committee votes.