THIS BRINGS US to the case of Jefferson Sessions, who has been nominated to the federal district court in Alabama. Mr. Sessions, who is now U.S. Attorney in Mobile, has been criticized for prosecuting some black civil rights workers on voter fraud charges in cases where the defendants were all acquitted. Unless his opponents can show that the prosecutions were without any foundation and were maliciously brought -- and they have not shown that -- it would be unfair and unwise to penalize a prosecutor for bringing an unpopular case that he did not win.

But there is, alas, more. Senators have also questioned the nominee about certain remarks he has made over the last few years and what these reveal about his beliefs. One comment about the Klan was, according to those present, clearly ironically intended and not meant as it read in plain type. But on another occasion, Mr. Sessions said that a federal judge, who complained that a white civil rights lawyer was "a disgrace to his race," might be right. He also characterized the NAACP and the ACLU as "un-American" and "communist inspired" because both organizations are "trying to force civil rights down the throats of people who are trying to put problems behind them."

The same career Justice Department civil rights attorneys who reported these statements testified that Mr. Sessions had been generally helpful and cooperative on civil rights cases they handled in his district. In one criminal case involving the prosecution of a popular sheriff and eight deputies, he was one of the few lawyers in the U.S. Attorney's office to provide advice and suggest matters for investigation. But does any of this cancel out what is revealed about Mr. Sessions in those dreadful remarks?

Mr. Sessions may very well be a skilled and accomplished lawyer. And he may not be the kind of obvious crazy who would advocate an established church, for example, or prohibit any government regulation of the economy. But senators must go beyond this to decide not whether they like the man or even if they agree with him on the merits of the controversial voter fraud case. They must decide whether his off- the-cuff comments really reflect his views or if, as he now claims, they do not. In exercising this responsibility, senators cannot rely on the ABA, the FBI or Common Cause. They must make a judgment about a man's character and his true beliefs. That is seldom easy, but here it is particularly important, for the remarks on their face strongly indicate to us, anyway, a bias on civil rights and civil liberties issues that would disqualify the nominee from consideration for the bench.