A Safe Play by the President : Court nominee seems to have key political advantage: ease of confirmation

President Clinton has played it safe with his Supreme Court nomination of federal appeals judge Stephen G. Breyer--a person who, like most of the current justices, carried the credentials of an astute veteran jurist before being selected.

In due course, the nation will learn much more about Breyer: his upbringing, his values, his judicial philosophy. By all reports, it appears he will have little difficulty being confirmed, despite previous questions about delinquent Social Security taxes for hiselderly part-time housekeeper.

His days as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee seem to have served him well. Republicans as conservative as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah praise Breyer; Democrats as liberal as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts salute him. He is described alternately as moderate to conservative and moderate to liberal.

If he is indeed a man in the middle, perhaps he can help find a consensus on a court that runs from just left of center to the extreme right. He will serve his country well if he can help bring about agreement. However, it must be asked whether Clinton, on this, his second opportunity to shape the court, chose the best man or woman. Or did he pick Breyer because he didn't wish to spend political capital fighting for a nominee who might also have been impressive but a less safe choice?

The Supreme Court is the protector of the Constitution, the reflection of the moral values of this nation. Perhaps history will conclude that Breyer belongs in the pantheon of great justices. In any event, we hope that in exercising what Clinton has called one of the most important acts of his Administration, the President did not overvalue the ease-of-confirmation factor.

Clinton may get a chance to appoint still another Supreme Court justice after Breyer. Judge Breyer, if confirmed, may turn out to be an excellent justice. But excellence comes in many forms. Surely there is room on the court for broader diversity in legal experience, race, gender, geography, academic and economic background--without sacrificing brilliance.

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