Mr. Justice Mitchell?


That Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine is the front-runner for the coming vacancy on the Supreme Court is obvious. Should he be President Clinton's choice (front-runners sometimes stumble), it would be a popular nomination. Confirmation would be almost automatic; he is well-liked and respected by the Democrats he leads in the Senate and by Republican senators as well.

A choice like this would be a good one for this president at this time. Mr. Mitchell practiced law for 12 years and has had experience in all three branches of the federal government. Before he was a senator he was a U.S. district court judge, and before that he was the U.S. attorney for Maine.

His legislative experience is the most important entry on his job resume. Senators and governors used to be routinely nominated to the Supreme Court. Three former U.S. senators and an ex-governor served on the court at the same time in the 1950s. But there hasn't been a U.S. senator or a governor on the court since 1971. What senators bring to the Supreme Court is a real-world understanding of how laws get made. It is one thing to read Congress' latest product, dictionary in hand. It is another to have participated in the committee meetings and floor debates, the favor trading and compromising that produce the language of laws.

George Mitchell has another attribute that would serve this court and President Clinton well. He is a man of the left. His Americans for Democratic Action "Liberal Quotient" (based on Senate roll call votes) is right up there with Barbara Mikulski's, Paul Sarbanes' and Edward Kennedy's. The present Supreme Court's conservatism has not been alleviated by the first Clinton appointee, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At least not yet. She has voted with the majority in every case. Bill Clinton, as "a new kind of Democrat," has to practice a balancing act, satisfying liberals and conservatives with his policies, programs and appointments.

Presidents like to leave behind footprints in the sands of time in the form of Supreme Court justices who survive their presidency for many years. Mr. Mitchell is 60. He could be expected to serve 15 or 20 years on the court after President Clinton returns to Little Rock. Justice Harry Blackmun, whose retirement will create the vacancy, was 61 when he was appointed 24 years ago.

There are several office-holders in Congress and in state houses who offer President Clinton the same sort of pluses that Senator Mitchell offers. But the majority leader would be a good choice.

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