After five days in which it heard from some 40 witnesses plus the nominee himself, the Senate Judiciary Committee has ended its confirmation hearings on the selection of David Souter as a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court - and wisely so.
The decision to conclude the hearings was prudent despite strong calls for continuing them. There's little the committee seems likely to learn that it hasn't already discovered. With the Supreme Court beginning its fall term on Oct. 1, the vacancy there needs to be filled as expeditiously as possible. And there are limits to how long such hearings can be extended without turning them from a legitimate examination into a trial by ordeal like the infamous one that savaged Robert Bork.Though the hearings left plenty of questions unanswered, it's hard to see how the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate can reasonably decline to confirm Souter's nomination.
Yes, Souter is encountering continuing opposition from both sides of the debate over abortion. But if this nomination is rejected, it's hard to believe the White House would nominate someone more liberal than Souter seems to be on this score - or that the Senate would confirm someone more conservative.
Yes, it's not clear which way Souter wants the Supreme Court to go on a variety of other issues, particularly affirmative action and the expansion of individual rights. But Souter's refusal to spell out how he would vote on a particular case is certainly understandable. After all, how many senators have not had the experience of making a campaign promise, then discovering after election day that it was not entirely appropriate to apply the broad principles involved in that promise to some particular set of circumstances?
Yes, it's hard to square Souter's warm embrace of judicial restraint with his glowing praise of retiring Justice William Brennan, who made a career of substituting his personal preferences for the clear dictates of the law and the Constitution. But who seriously expects any nominee to pick an unnecessary fight with his predecessor? And, as Souter indicated, how many Americans really want the Supreme Court just to sit on its hands when there are serious social problems that Congress and the White House keep ducking?
Despite the many unanswered questions, the public still learned some important things from the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings. It learned that David Souter is no rigid ideologue. It learned that he is a man of considerable grace, charm and intelligence. And it learned that his years on the bench in New Hampshire have taught him that even the driest lawsuits involve the lives of many people who can either prosper or suffer because of what he does.
At this point, no one can be absolutely certain which direction the Supreme Court will take if the nomination of David Souter is confirmed. But then that's often the case, even with nominees who have acquired a much longer and seemingly clearer track record than Souter's. If Souter handles his duties on the high court with as much common sense and balance as he displayed at the recent hearings, he will serve ably and maybe even with distinction. By all means, the nominee should be confirmed.