A Right to Know Souter

AMERICANS need to know a lot more about Supreme Court nominee David Souter than has yet come to light. If confirmed, he'll be filling one of the nation's most important posts at a time when critical questions of individual rights - regarding privacy, freedom of choice, religious practice, and compensation for past racial discrimination, to name some - face the courts. His thoughts on such subjects could help shape American society well into the next century. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Biden is right to affirm, ``At this fateful moment in our history we have a right to know - and a duty to discover - precisely what David Hackett Souter thinks about the great constitutional issues of our time.'' That sets a correct course for senators who begin confirmation hearings today. But keeping to the course won't be easy.

Judge Souter can be expected to sidestep such straight-on queries as whether he'd vote to overturn the 1973 Roe vs. Wade abortion decision. But the central issue of an implied right to privacy in the US Constitution must be probed, and there are other ways to do it. Does such a right exist in the Ninth Amendment's recognition of rights not specified in the Constitution yet retained by the people - so-called ``natural rights''? What are Souter's thoughts on the 14th Amendment's ``equal protection'' guarantee as applied to matters of sexual discrimination?

How would he weigh the Constitution's guarantee of free exercise of religion against the state's police and regulatory powers? How broadly does Souter read the Commerce Clause, which has long been used to justify the federal government's advance into new realms of social legislation?

In all these areas, the country needs a justice who avoids legalistic tunnel vision. ``Strict constructionist,'' the term his supporters like to apply to the New Hampshire judge, doesn't have to mean being narrow or insensitive to the social and technological changes reshaping society today.

Recent Supreme Court confirmations have shown that the days of perfunctory examination are over. Judge Souter will have to let us in on his thinking. If he's not willing to do that, he shouldn't be confirmed.

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