ACOMMITTEE of the American Bar Association dropped a bombshell this week. The panel, the Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, had been asked by the Justice Department to evaluate the professional qualifications of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, as it customarily does in the case of any federal judicial nominee. It is not surprising that a majority of the committee gave its highest rating -- "well qualified" -- to Judge Bork. But it is a surprise that five members of the 15-member panel did not join in this recommendation. While the ABA has not announced the vote, it has been widely reported that one lawyer was simply "not opposed," and four others found the nominee "not qualified."

The Bork nomination has been and continues to be extremely controversial. But until this week the argument against putting Judge Bork on the Supreme Court concerned his judicial philosophy, not his legal ability. That ability was assumed. This is a man, after all, who has been a partner in a couple of major law firms, a professor at Yale Law School, the solicitor general of the United States and, for the past six years, a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals. One would have thought that somewhere along the way, his competence would have been challenged before this. But quite the opposite is the case. When he was nominated for the Court of Appeals, this same bar association committee was unanimous in giving him its highest rating.

That designation, according to the ABA, is reserved for those who "stand at the top of the legal profession in the community involved and have outstanding legal ability, wide experience and the highest reputation for integrity and temperament" as well as having "a reputation as an outstanding citizen {who has} made important community and professional contributions." What could have happened between that finding and the more recent one that convinced a substantial minority of the committee that the nominee is now not even minimally qualified?

The chairman of the committee, Judge Harold Tyler of New York, has an obligation to do much more than simply appear before the Judiciary Committee next week, announce the vote and discuss the finding of the majority. The decision of the dissenters must be accounted for as well. The ABA is never asked to make political judgments about a nominee. According to its own guidelines, the panel "is intended to weigh professional competence, not to assess the ideology of the prospective nominee." The clear implication of the negative votes therefore is that in the minds of those who cast them, Judge Bork is incompetent or flawed in personal integrity or judicial temperament. These are serious judgments on a man whose reputation in these areas has thus far been good. The specifics of the minority findings need to be made public, and the nominee should have a chance to reply. The ABA owes that to all sides.