Souter Praised For Intellect, but Short on Specifics

As the Senate Judiciary Committee questions the New Hampshire judge, liberals find little to criticize

AS self-effacing David Souter slips behind a red felt-covered witness table again today, the vacant Supreme Court seat two blocks away is almost within reach. Barring some totally unexpected revelation, Senate confirmation now appears virtually assured for President Bush's nominee to fill the Court seat of the retired Justice William Brennan.

``Thus far, he's a winner,'' says David O'Brien, professor of government at the University of Virginia.

What Americans apparently will get as the newest Supreme Court justice is ``a solid judicial conservative,'' but not a right-wing ideologue, Professor O'Brien says. ``The constant refrain that came out of the [first two days of] hearings was his admiration for'' past conservative judges John Harlan and Felix Frankfurter.

``He clearly tried to portray himself as a centrist on a conservative Court,'' O'Brien adds, ``not mentioning how conservative the Court is becoming.

Although several Senate Judiciary Committee liberals are frustrated that they have been unable to draw more specific views on the contentious abortion issue from Judge Souter - who since early this year has been a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit - most of the hard questioning seems over.

Indeed, after a few exchanges, senators of both parties in the high ceilinged, paneled hearing room, were quick to praise the nominee for his intellect, legal knowledge, and skillful, low-key presentation.

In turn and by subject an arc of 14 seated senators interrogated the nominee politely but firmly the first two days. Delaware's Joseph Biden, his questions sometimes as long as the answers, pressed on abortion. Pennsylvania's no-nonsense Arlen Specter took up separation of church and state. Massachusetts' Ted Kennedy bore in on civil rights. Illinois' Paul Simon sought a champion for the disadvantaged.

``I think Souter came across very well'' in those two days of questioning, Professor O'Brien says. ``There were no smoking guns. The President's supporters are riding high, and the opponents didn't gain any ground. Nor did leading Democrats make major headway'' toward beginning to build a case for rejection.

Committee chairman Senator Biden, largely stymied on abortion, had to admit to Souter: ``I think you did well.''

Senators have been reassured by several views Souter gave in those colloquies. He said he recognizes marital privacy as a ``fundamental'' right; supports the principles of affirmative action and class action lawsuits, says precedent is important but not all controlling, and holds that there is ``no question'' that the First Amendment protects the rights of minorities.

Repeatedly Souter says he does not have an ideological agenda on abortion or anything else, and senators are disposed to believe him.

In contrast to defeated nominee Robert Bork's rather academic and lecturing style of three years ago, ``Souter is a tutor,'' as O'Brien put it, and senators clearly like that informality and humility. The second day of hearings Souter referred to his question and answer session of the previous day with Senator Biden as: ``When you and I were speaking yesterday ...''

Senators also were pleased to see Souter quickly dispel the notion that he is an eccentric Yankee who cannot relate to people, by displaying a friendly manner and sense of compassion. For any judge ``there is one overriding responsibility,'' he said at one point, ``the recognition that ... the ruling that the court makes is going to affect a life. I have learned that lesson.''

Another Souter asset is his a gentle wit.

When South Carolina's Sen. Strom Thurmond inadvertently cut him off after the first word of his answer, Souter drolly protested: ``You're going to turn me into a laconic Yankee.''

To Democratic committee members particularly, Souter entered the hearings that began late last week as a largely blank canvas.

As they enter the third day of hearings, they have a pretty good sketch of the man and his ideas.

But ``he's his own painter,'' O'Brien notes: The lack of plentiful corroboration for his just-stated views has some Democratic senators vaguely uneasy. They remember that during similar confirmation hearings three years ago Anthony Kennedy made statements that impressed some Democrats as middle of the road; but as a member of the High Court, Justice Kennedy has been a solid member of the conservative wing.

No one on the committee doubts Souter's integrity, and few would question his independence. Nevertheless, ``the Senate now is in the position of affirming him based on his simple broad reassurances,'' O'Brien says.

``No one here is seeking a commitment on anything,'' Biden said at one point. Nonetheless, he and others tried repeatedly to extract from Souter as much information as possible that would hint at whether Souter believes the landmark Roe v. Wade case, permitting abortion, should be overturned.

Finally Souter said: ``I have not made up my mind'' on overturning Roe, adding that should such a case come before him, ``I will listen to both sides.''

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