SEN. PAUL SIMON made a speech the other day at the National Press Club about the Senate's role in confirming judges. He is the junior member of the Judiciary Committee on the Democratic side, and the only nonlawyer on that side, but he has been given primary responsibility by his party colleagues for reviewing judicial nominations. The senator's views on the confirmation process are unexceptional. Senators, he believes, should assure themselves that a nominee is a competent and honest lawyer. They should not reject a nominee solely because they disagree with him on philosophical grounds, but they have a responsibility to block the appointment of anyone whose views are so outside the mainstream -- a contempt for the First Amendment, for example, a lack of concern for the civil rights of citizens -- as to render the candidate unfit for the bench.

But cases are not always that clear cut, as Sen. Simon acknowledges. He pleads for more help. He wants such groups as Common Cause and the American Civil Liberties Union to make recommendations on a regular basis, and he wants the American Bar Association to make not only a professional judgment on a nominee's credentials, but also a political recommendation as to whether he should be confirmed. Unfortunately, that won't solve anything. After a judicial nominee has been screened by the senators from his own state, by the Justice Department and the White House, by the FBI and the ABA, after a hearing at which the whole world and every interest group in it is free to come forward with views, the senators are the only ones who must finally bite the bullet and decide whether the nominee would make a good judge. And it's seldom as easy as screening out the incompetents and the kooks.