WHERE does Judge David Souter stand on abortion? Free speech? Affirmative action? Americans want to know. These are character-revealing issues, not legal fine points. For the White House to say that Souter is a strict-constructionist, that he does not believe in legislating from the bench, may suffice for the sound-bite milieu of political campaigns. But the Supreme Court has need of men and women of higher calling than that of Constitution accountant.
All great political questions are essentially moral. Lincoln knew this. The United States had been founded upon revolt. He did not deny the South the right of revolution - if for just cause. ``The right of revolution is never a legal right,'' he said in 1861. ``At most, it is but a moral right, when exercised for a morally justifiable cause.... Without such a cause revolution is no right, but simply a wicked exercise of physical power.''
Preservation of slavery was not a just cause. The secession was a ``counterrevolution by slaveholders against the ideology of freedom, the dignity of labor, and the chance for upward mobility for workingmen represented by Lincoln's Republican Party,'' writes James M. McPherson in ``Lincoln on Democracy'' (compiled by Mario M. Cuomo, governor of New York, and a number of Lincoln scholars, to be published by Harper & Row in November).
``This is essentially a people's contest,'' Lincoln said July 4, 1861. ``It is a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men - to lift artificial weights from all shoulders - to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all - to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.''
Liberty needed clear definition, he said in Baltimore on April 18, 1864: ``We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor.... And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names - liberty and tyranny.''
Some say Lincoln equivocated on slavery and secession. He certainly had to confront his convictions in his decisions. ``There have been men base enough to propose to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson and Olustee and thus win the respect of masters they fought,'' he said in mid-1864, when Northern politicians were suggesting that compromise on emancipation might shorten the war. ``Should I do so, I should deserve to be damned in time and eternity....My enemies pretend I am now carrying on this war for the sole purpose of Abolition. So long as I am President, it shall be carried on for the sole purpose of restoring the Union. But no human power can subdue this rebellion without the use of the emancipation policy, and every other policy calculated to weaken the moral and physical forces of the rebellion.''
Abortion, freedom of speech, and job opportunity are moral issues. If they were not there would not be such passion over them. Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana rightly vetoed the latest attempt by his state legislature to restrict unfairly a woman's access to legal abortion. To allow an abortion through the first trimester of pregnancy for incest, but forcing a woman to decide within one week in case of rape - a time of great emotional trauma - he saw as preposterous.
The rights of women have been slow in coming. American women have equal access to education and to starting career positions, but advance therefrom is harder than for men. Women, for instance, move among the backwaters of American churches as pastors, the choicer assignments going to men.
The Senate may not expect to determine where a candidate will head on issues before the court - if only to avoid the appearance of confirmation in exchange for votes. But it has a duty to elicit where he is coming from.