Supreme Court nominee David H. Souter received the highest rating from the American Bar Association's judicial screening panel, the Justice Department said yesterday.

Souter received a unanimous "well qualified" rating from the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, according to a letter from the panel to the Justice Department.

Souter, a former member of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, was nominated by President Bush in July for the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice William J. Brennan Jr.

"The president is pleased to receive this news and looks forward to a speedy confirmation," White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.

"We'd like to see hearings start as soon as possible, and hopefully, he'll be in place for the new court," Fitzwater added. The court's new term begins next month.

Souter received a similar "well qualified" rating earlier this year when he was nominated for a seat on the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston. He took the federal bench last spring but has not heard any cases.

The 15-member ABA committee rates judicial nominees either "not qualified," "qualified" or "well qualified" but applies different standards to evaluate candidates for district, appellate and Supreme Court judgeships.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to open hearings on Souter's nomination on Sept. 13.

Attorney General Dick Thornburgh hailed the ABA's decision, saying it confirmed that "President Bush has selected a man of superb intellect and qualifications. I look forward to a speedy confirmation by the United States Senate," Thornburgh said.

In 1987, four members of the ABA panel dissented from the committee's finding that Judge Robert Bork was "well qualified" for the Supreme Court. These members found Bork, then a federal appellate judge, to be "not qualified" for the high court while a fifth member voted "not opposed" to Bork's confirmation.

Bork's nomination was turned down by the Senate following a bitter fight led by a coalition of civil rights and abortion rights activists.