Today,the Senate Judiciary Committee takes up the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be associate attorney general. We think it is a bad appointment. We base that on the extraordinary record he has compiled over the last four years as assistant attorney general for civil rights, a subject over which he would retain jurisdiction in his new role. There is a temptation not to distinguish among administration officials on civil rights issues. They hold similar views; they act only in the president's name. But Mr. Reynolds is different. He has acted with a singlemindedness that has marked him off. His is the record of a zealot.

Mr. Reynolds as head of the civil rights division and the administration's leading civil rights official has moved systematically to arrow the remedies available to blacks and other groups historically discriminated against in our society. He has sought as well to reduce the traditional federal responsibility and protective role in the field. He has attacked both the busing of schoolchildren for the purpose of desegregation and the resort to numerical standards in setting up and judging affirmative action plans. Few people are fully comfortable with either of these remedies; they are extreme, and there have been cases in which both were badly used. But the Supreme Court itself has said that there are also times when they may and, in the case of busing, sometimes must be used to expunge past discrimination.

Mr. Reynolds, however, has fought their use. Grabbing at fragments of court decisions, he has gone so far as to try to dismantle existing programs peaceably using them. In this sense he has bent the law, not enforced it. He has, moreover, advanced no workable alternatives to the broad remedies he has sought to strike down. He has thereby left victims of discrimination largely defenseless in the mass. Just as important, more so in some ways, he has evinced little compassion for them. His ardor instead has been spent on restraint. He played an important role when the administration moved on grounds of procedural tidiness to stop the Internal Revenue Service from continuing to deny tax-exempt status to racially discriminating private schools. He was involved as well when the administration stalled on extension of the Voting Rights Act.

The American legal system is an adversarial one. It places great faith in a kind of invisible hand. Lawyers are meant to be battlers; out of their battles, justice emerges. So it is thought. At the Justice Department, however, a different standard obtains -- or should. Lawyers there -- and senior officials even more -- represent the United States, the national interest. Mr. Reynolds in his new capacity as the third-ranking official in the department would have jurisdiction over all civil functions, from antitrust policy to the choosing of future federal judges. It is no small power the Senate is asked to confer.

There is an unwritten rule that a confirmation vote ought not be used to reargue the last election, that confirmation hearings are not the right place for staging partisan policy disputes, that presidents should be able to fill the upper reaches of their administrations pretty much as they choose. In general we, too, incline to this view, and we expect the Senate committee does as well. It is also true that Mr. Reynolds has been anything but a rebel; he has had the support of those he works for. But neither does it seem to us that Mr. Reynolds can be described as a mere footsoldier in the campaign of the past four years. He has been a leader, a tireless adherent. He has been a step out ahead of courts and colleagues as well in trying to reverse or close down programs that were seeking to give black Americans a break.

His nomination sends an unmistakable message to both black and white Americans. It is not a pleasant message; it has to do with how much the government -- and the majority -- any longer care about trying to redress the society's historic racial wrongs. Mr. Reynolds has not been a superconservative generalist like Attorney General Edwin Meese III. He has been a specialist, has seemed at times obsessed. Does Mr. Meese go too far in naming him to this post? We think so. The coming days of Senate testimony may produce some insight that would make the record of the past four years and the prospect of the next four under Mr. Reynolds look less bleak. We can't think how.