The Senate Judiciary Committee's votes yesterday rejecting the nomination of William Bradford Reynolds to be associate attorney general take the Reagan administration to a new place on the issue of civil rights. Some senators who voted against Mr. Reynolds justified their action partly on grounds that he misled the committee during his confirmation hearings. They suggested the vote hinged on his integrity. We do not think that is fair, either to Mr. Reynolds or to the day's result. The controlling issue was not the character of the nominee; it was his record over the past four years as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Civil rights law is a difficult balancing act. Some of the remedies that have been developed over the years -- affirmative action, busing, those sections of the Voting Rights Act that differentiate among states -- are offensive to traditional values. But even more offensive is the ugly racial history whose effects these remedies have temporarily been put in place to overcome.

Mr. Reynolds put policy out of balance. He has a laudable vision of a colorblind society, one without tilt. No tilt would be fine if Americans could all start over, and start even. But they cannot, and that is why for a while longer they must continue to try to extirpate some parts of the past. That is essentially what the courts have said. That is also what we believe the committee said yesterday. Mr. Reynolds went too far.

Some will see his rejection as a thwarting of the political system, an effort to reverse the results of the last election, a vote that unfairly penalizes him for loyally following policy and unfairly denies the president his choice of an aide. We see it instead as proof of the system's suppleness and its healthy aversion to extremes. Within the administration there are responsible people advocating more moderate positions on civil rights, as both good government and good politics. Labor Secretary William Brock warned earlier this week that affirmative action will be on the scene for many years yet, and with cause.

We hope the president, Attorney General Edwin Meese and even Mr. Reynolds, should he remain at the head of the civil rights division, will take the vote as an expression of a national sense of limit on this issue. The president has done this on other matters in the past. This one is important. The Senate has done its constitutional duty -- and well.