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IS THIS THE WAY TO PICK JUDGES?

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The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a sharp blow Wednesday to the public's right to know how well the public's business is handled. If this mistake is to be corrected, Congress evidently will have to get into the act.

We're referring to the high court's decision to let the influential American Bar Association stay behind closed doors in conducting the deliberations that precede its recommendations on federal court nominees.The ruling is based on the notion that giving the public a close look at the ABA's deliberations would intrude on the president's power to nominate judges. What nonsense!

As a result of this verdict, the ABA remains the only private organization with a virtual veto over judicial nominees. Though the ABA is supposed to screen such nominees on the basis of the nominees' experience, ability, and judicial temperament, there's reason for suspecting that political bias has been governing the screening process. These suspicions are so widely shared that the case which gave rise to this week's ruling was brought before the Supreme Court by two groups that range across the political spectrum from conservative to liberal.

If these suspicions are as unfounded as the ABA maintains, the only sure way to prove it is to let the public see what witnesses the ABA calls on various nominees, what testimony they give, and how the ABA makes up its mind.

Some officials maintain that if the president can fill court vacancies on the basis of the candidate's political philosophy, it's just as reasonable for the ABA and the Senate to consider such matters when those groups assess the nominees. But if political considerations are to play a role in the selection of federal judges, that's even more reason for letting the public find out what's behind the ABA's recommendations.

There are other objections to the role the ABA now has in judicial nominations. Senate hearings are delayed until the ABA completes its screenings. When Senate hearings start, the ABA almost always gets to testify first. What's more, though ABA ratings of court nominees can be ignored, they usually are given so much weight as to amount to a veto.

By all means, the Senate and the White House should still listen to the ABA's views about judicial nominees. But the public ought to know how big a role political preference plays in the screening of its servants who sit on the bench as well as in their ultimate selection and confirmation. For that to happen, Congress must insist that a bright light be shined into some dark corners at the ABA.