IN CHOOSING U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Souter to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court yesterday, President Bush maintained that he looked to the nominee's qualifications, character and experience on the bench rather than his position on any single issue. Avoiding a "litmus test" based on the controversial issue of abortion was the course urged on him by congressional leaders of both parties. It was the only position that may make it possible to avoid a blistering confirmation fight. People who were looking for a fight on the abortion issue may be disappointed, but many senators may be relieved if a single-issue battle can be avoided, as at least now seems possible.

Sen. Dole (R-Kan.) was right on Sunday when he said the president's responsibility was broader than his political obligations to a faction of conservatives. Instead, suggested the senator, "{W}hat President Bush owes the country -- I think that's the important thing, not any group, liberals or conservatives, or pro-life or pro-choice -- is an outstanding nominee who will be on the bench for some time." Democrats, too, signaled the president over the weekend that they would accept a qualified conservative but not an ideologue. Liberals are not kidding themselves that a New Hampshire Republican with strong ties to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu will be another Justice Brennan. But an outstanding nominee who is not known to have a fixed position on Roe v. Wade does seem to have at least a fair chance of confirmation.

Is Judge Souter an outstanding nominee? We expect that the confirmation process will help produce an answer. On paper, he appears to be very well qualified for the high court. He has an excellent education and was a Rhodes scholar. He has been the attorney general of New Hampshire, a supreme court judge in that state, and he has served briefly on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The Senate has confirmed him unanimously once before, and though it can be expected that the review this time will be far more comprehensive, it is a good sign that he recently passed muster with the American Bar Association and the Senate.

The long process of examining his public record, his private life, his writings and his judicial philosophy can now begin. But this searching inquiry ought not to be warped by a limited focus. The importance of this office and the length of its tenure demand a judgment on the whole man.