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A choice for consensus

President Clinton's first nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be a solid one. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a federal appeals court judge in the District of Columbia, has a reputation as a moderate jurist and a consensus builder _ the main qualities Clinton said he wanted in the person he chose to succeed retiring Justice Byron White.

The Ginsburg nomination also advances the cause of diversity in the highest levels of government. If confirmed, she would become the second woman on the court, joining Sandra Day O'Connor. Ginsburg also would be the first Jewish justice on the court since Abe Fortas resigned in 1969.

The nominee's record as a lawyer and a judge suggests that Ginsburg is more interested in justice than in ideological victories. As a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union from 1973-1980, she was a pioneer in the legal fight to expand women's rights. Ginsburg challenged laws that excluded women from juries and gave preference to men over women as administrators of estates. She helped end the U.S. military's policy of automatically giving dependency status to the husbands of service women but not to wives.

When President Carter appointed her to the federal bench in 1980, her ACLU work marked her in the public mind as a liberal, a stereotypical label that didn't stick. When Clinton announced her nomination to the Supreme Court, he praised the 60-year-old judge as a centrist who often stakes out a middle ground between her liberal and conservative colleagues on the appeals court. "I believe that in the years ahead, she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has on the Court of Appeals, so that our judges can become an instrument of common unity," the president said.

Ginsburg's legal opinions and writings will come under close scrutiny in her confirmation hearings, but so far there is nothing in her record that should disturb the strong bipartisan support that greeted her nomination. As a judge, she has consistently upheld abortion rights, meeting Clinton's pro-choice test for his judicial nominees. But she has drawn the ire of women's groups for publicly questioning the approach the high court took in deciding Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 landmark ruling establishing the constitutional right to abortion. Ginsburg has argued that the court's sweeping ruling in that case may have "prolonged divisiveness and deferred a stable settlement" of the abortion issue. Women, she suggested, might have won greater access to abortion through a combination of judicial and legislative actions.

Clinton's selection of Ginsburg concluded a labored three-month search marked by vacillation and clumsiness that needlessly damaged the reputations of two other finalists, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Breyer of Boston, who seemed to be the favorite of both Senate Democrats and Republicans.

The White House leaked word that Babbit was the president's first choice. But Clinton began to hesitate when environmentalists and Western politicians urged the president to pass over the former Arizona governor. Babbitt, they argued, was needed more at Interior than at the Supreme Court. While Babbitt was left dangling, his detractors resurrected unsubstantiated and oft-denied charges linking the Arizonan to people with organized crime connections.

As Babbitt's star began to fade, Judge Breyer emerged as the front-runner. The White House had known for five weeks that Breyer had failed to pay Social Security taxes on a part-time housekeeper for 13 years. Breyer paid the taxes after the Zoe Baird controversy focused public attention on the issue. If Clinton thought this disqualified Breyer _ and key senators in both parties said it should not _ he should have spared the judge the embarrassment.

Fortunately, the result was better than the process. Judge Ginsburg seems eminently qualified to take her place on the nation's highest court.

Standing next to the president for the announcement, Ginsburg accepted the nomination as another step forward in women's struggle for greater opportunities. It contributes, she said, "to the end of the days when women, at least half the talent pool in our country, appear in high places as only one at a time performers."

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