Almost everybody who has addressed the subject has recognized at some point that it is improper to assess the qualifications of a Supreme Court nominee solely in terms of his politics or ideology. Most commentators acknowledge that federal judges are not politicians and ought not to be judged like politicians.

Although it is not his main purpose, this point is well made by Prof. Charles L. Black Jr. in an article originally published in the Yale Law Journal and reprinted in The Post {Outlook, July 12}. A former colleague of Bork at the Yale Law School, Black points out that presidents surely take account of a person's political opinions when making a nomination -- such considerations play a "large, often a crucial role in the president's choice of his nominee" -- and, therefore, that the Senate cannot afford to ignore them when called upon to give its advice and consent.

To support this conclusion, however, he goes on to contrast the Senate's proper role in considering judicial nominations with its role in considering a president's nominees for Cabinet positions. With the Cabinet, he writes, "there is a clear structural reason for a senator's letting the president have pretty much anybody he wants." Here -- but by inference not in the case of judges -- a nominee's politics will properly govern the outcome. Cabinet officers are the president's people; they work for him, as Black puts it. Not so the judges. "The judges are not the president's people," he says emphatically. "God forbid!" But, as he is quick to add, they are also not the Senate's people.

All of which is to say they are not politicians, and, because they are not, the Senate should not allow political considerations to govern or control its decision in a confirmation vote.

Of course, the same rule must constrain a president when he makes a judicial nomination, especially one for the Supreme Court. As the Framers of the Constitution reiterated time and again, judges occupy a separate branch of overnment -- detached from the people by the manner of their selection and from the political branches by their life tenure -- precisely because their work is not political in the ordinary sense. A good judge is not the same as a good politician; he is neither a conservative nor a liberal.

Bork, for example, is called a conservative by friends and enemies alike, but on the Court of Appeals he voted with his nominally liberal colleague, Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in 90 percent of the cases on which they both sat, including an important press libel case where he differed with his so-called conservative colleague (as he then was), Judge Antonin Scalia.

How, then, to judge a judge? At a minimum, by his refusal to be political. A fair measure of that self-discipline is his capacity to recognize and his willingness to respect the difference between what is politically desirable (or at least desired) and what is constitutionally permissible. Bork's record is filled with examples of this.

When still a professor, Bork joined a host of legal luminaries (including Archibald Cox) by complaining that the Supreme Court had no constitutional warrant for its decision in Roe v. Wade, the abortion case; but as a judge he concurred in a decision holding that the Department of Health and Human Services had no authority to require that parents be notified of the contraceptives prescribed for their minor children. And in 1981 he testified against a proposed "human life bill," which sought to reverse Roe v. Wade by statutory means. Even if the original decision had been incorrect, he said, the proposed bill amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to prescribe a rule of decision for the courts.

Bork could not have liked the poster -- "Tired of the JELLYBEAN REPUBLIC?" -- condemning President Reagan for his alleged lack of compassion, and privately he may have agreed with the transit authorities who in 1983 refused to lease space to allow its display in the Washington-area subway stations. Nevertheless, Bork wrote the court's opinion declaring the officials' action to be a violation of the First Amendment.

Had he been a Republican member of the House of Representatives, Bork, too, might have protested the unfairness of the committee assignments made by the Democratic leadership. But as a judge, and going well beyond his colleagues sitting in the case, in 1983 he rejected the lawsuit filed by 14 Republican House members. As he put it, they lacked standing to bring this suit, a conclusion he reached out of respect for the constitutional principle of separation of powers.

Decisions such as these may explain why, although he has written 106 majority opinions during his five years on the Court of Appeals, he has never been reversed by the Supreme Court. What is perhaps even more remarkable, of the 401 cases in which he joined the majority, not one has been reversed by the Supreme Court. This surely can serve as a response to those critics who complain that his appointment would threaten the liberal-conservative balance on the court.

What is at stake here is more than the career of Robert Bork. Against the political activist of the left or right who would look outside the Constitution -- which in practice means inside himself -- for moral principles that he would then impose on the rest of us, Bork represents the cause of constitutional government. This means government limited by the rules and moral principles embodied in the text of the Constitution, rules that are to be honored by judges as well as by presidents and legislators. Honoring that text requires a judge to both abide by the rules and respect the principles.

As Bork said recently, in a constitutional democracy the moral content of the law must be given by the morality of the Framers or, in the case of a statute, that of the legislators, never by the morality of the judge. "The sole task of the latter -- and it is a task quite large enough for anyone's wisdom, skill, and virtue -- is to translate the framer's or the legislator's morality into a rule to govern unforeseen circumstances."

That, I submit, can serve as the standard by which we judge a judge, especially a judge on a court with the power to overrule the judgments of a democratic people.

The writer is John M. Olin university professor at Georgetown University and an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.