Souter Praised for Intellect, but Short on Specifics as the Senate Judiciary Committee Questions the New Hampshire Judge, Liberals Find Little to Criticize

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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. …