In the wake of Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of David H. Souter and amid predictions that President Bush would veto the 1990 civil rights bill, a mighty civil rights warrior passed away recently.

Althea T. Simmons, the NAACP's chief lobbyist in Washington, who died Sept. 13 of respiratory failure after hip surgery, had dedicated her life to shaping policies to further equal justice under the law, fighting for democracy for all Americans.

The irony is that she died as this nation is approaching a crossroads in its commitment to the rights of minorities and women. At stake is whether the nation is willing to view the principles laid down in the Constitution as flexible enough to embrace more, not fewer, Americans.

After several days of hearings, we still do not know Judge Souter. He has refused to state his position on the right of millions of women to freedom over their reproductive systems, a stance that should make him patently unsuitable.

"While Souter has elaborated upon his judicial philosophy on other fundamental points likely to come before the court for interpretation," said Sharon Schuster, of the American Association of University Women, "he has refused to discuss issues of privacy and sex discrimination with the same candor and thoughtful intelligence. We believe that the right to privacy and to protection from discrimination are fundamental to a just society."

Furthermore, at a 1976 commencement speech at the New England Aeronautical Institute and Daniel Webster College, Souter described federal minority hiring preferences as "affirmative discrimination." He said, "Quotas do not help those who need help. {They} address a set of statistics, not an individual."

Yet relatively little attention was given to this and many other troubling aspects of Souter's background, including his statement that there is no racism in New Hampshire. Arrogantly, the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to breeze Souter through this process, claiming that an issue such as reproductive rights should not be the litmus test for a Supreme Court justice.

It is a position that flies in the face of history, says Howard University professor Olive Taylor.

"All throughout American history from George Washington's first appointment, there has always been an overriding issue around which presidents nominated prospective justices and senates questioned them. To say that the American people must look merely at the credentials of a prospective justice is like expecting a person to view a beautifully put-together train, a masterful machine, and to step on board without knowing the destination."

Masterful jurisprudence is much too low a standard on which to base a decision of such profound constitutional significance as the designate to fill the seat of Justice William J. Brennan Jr. For what is at stake is the specter of further retreat by the court from its constitutional role of guaranteeing equal protection for minorities and women.

Indeed, the civil rights bill of 1990 is Congress's effort to restore and reinforce employment discrimination laws weakened last year by the Supreme Court. President Bush had threatened to veto the legislation, but civil rights advocates and congressional supporters have worked hard to include compromises in response to concerns of the Bush administration and of the business community.

That legislation was the focus of Althea Simmons's last days as she lay in her hospital bed. Nearly two dozen changes have been made in the legislation, and the bill is now ready for the president to sign.

Even Business Week urged President Bush to sign this bill, noting that "business had little difficulty coping with the previous status quo and that minorities and women would account for even larger percentages of the labor force in the future."

There would be no greater tribute to the legacy of Althea Simmons than for the Senate to reevaluate the full implications of the Souter nomination and for the president to sign the 1990 Civil Rights Act. For Simmons fought to ensure that equality for nonwhite people and women would not lose ground to conservative forces trying to turn back the clock.

Althea Simmons was a mighty oak, one of those special Americans who help make the Constitution a living document by their dedication to the rights of all persons. At her funeral Thursday, Elaine R. Jones, of the Legal Defense and Education Fund, said that to the very last breath, Simmons also spoke of the urgency to keep up the pressure, telling her younger colleagues, "Don't turn back now. Keep on fighting."