Curtain up on Act III

THE third act of the great high court drama of 1987 is likely to be much quieter than Acts I and II. Praise be. Hearings on the confirmation of the nomination of Judge Anthony Kennedy to the Supreme Court of the United States begin today. It ain't over 'til it's over, but so far signs suggest that in Judge Kennedy, President Reagan has a nominee with whom a broad range of the American public can be comfortable.

He is a conservative, but in the mainstream; he focuses on the constitutional issues at hand. The author of about 400 opinions, he is a known quantity. He is strong on criminal justice, and a firm advocate of the First Amendment.

The American Bar Association's evaluating committee has unanimously proclaimed him ``well qualified'' for a seat on the court, a rating that identifies him as ``among the best available for appointment to the Supreme Court.''

``Among the best available'' is surely the standard that should have been held to all along. The unsuccessful Bork and Ginsburg nominations, however, may have represented something that the Reagan administration had to get out of its system. The efforts to nominate them were not without educational value for the public. The Bork hearings, particularly, crystallized for many the extent to which the goals of the civil rights movement have become mainstream American ideals. They also revealed the importance Americans place on rights to privacy.

It is probably, alas, asking too much for the Reagan administration to come up with a nominee over whom the National Organization for Women could wax enthusiastic. NOW and some other groups have taken Mr. Kennedy to task for his former memberships in a couple of discriminatory men's clubs, and for his position on the doctrine of comparable worth. The possibility of an overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 abortion decision, troubles many; some who might have opposed Kennedy are holding their fire.

But women's interests are not so far out of the mainstream - are not out of the mainstream at all - that women's advocates need to fear a mainstream judge, even a conservative. The hearings will of course let the public get to know Judge Kennedy better. Questions will presumably arise. But so far, the signs are good for a more constructive outcome.

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