Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on the nomination of Edwin Meese III to be attorney general. The nomination has been a matter of serious controversy for a year now, and more than a dozen individuals and organizations have asked to testify. All will be accorded a hearing, but some have been told that, while prepared statements will be accepted for the record, oral testimony should be limited to three minutes. The chairman of the committee, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) has indicated that he hopes the hearing can be completed in a single day. That would be a terrible mistake or, put another way, an outrage.

The initial set of hearings on this nomination ran for four days last March. Accusations against Mr. Meese, of both a criminal and ethical nature, raised so many questions that further Senate action was suspended. In an effort to clear his name and forward his confirmation, Mr. Meese sought the appointment of an independent counsel to look into the charges and determine whether any criminal indictments were warranted. The court-appointed counsel, Jacob A. Stein, and his associates spent five months on this task, interviewed more than 200 witnesses and issued a detailed and lengthy report. That report finds no basis for bringing a single prosecution against Mr. Meese for the violation of any federal criminal statute. But the special prosecutor specifically and correctly declined to make any finding on the ethics of the nominee's conduct or his fitness to hold high office. That is not the independent counsel's responsibility under the statute. It is something the Senate must now do, and do with great care.

The committee must not be railroaded; Mr. Meese's opponents must not be denied sufficient time to argue their case. And there is a case -- one that at the very least needs some explaining, some open acknowledgment by Mr. Meese himself. It is true, as his attorneys point out on the opposite page today, not just that the nominee cannot be accused of any criminal conduct but also that some of his detractors have omitted material from their accusations that works to Mr. Meese's advantage in the argument. But in the dealings in question there is a pattern of insensitivity to ethical standards and to potential conflicts of interest, one that simply cannot be ignored in a prospective chief law officer of the land, and it must be dealt with.

Mr. Meese himself must address the questions raised by his opponents. Does he know why his actions, though not criminal, give rise to legitimate concern? Does he understand why so many people who are not his "enemies" are so disturbed by these easy dealings? That is the crucial missing piece in the argument so far. None of us knows if Mr. Meese yet even realies that he made many mistakes of judgment -- one after the other -- and that his repeated failure to maintain a strict wall between his personal and private interests and his public powers and duties was wrong. What is needed is evidence that Mr. Meese does realize this and regrets it. Finally, senators must examine each charge and determine whether, taken as a whole, his conduct disqualifies Mr. Meese from office.

It has been almost 30 years since the Senate turned down a presidential nominee for a Cabinet post. It is a serious step, as would be a rush to confirmation when doubts remain. A single day of hearings is not enough.