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As the Senate begins hearings this week on the nomination of Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court, more than just this particular nominee is in the spotlight. So is the way this nation fills vacancies on the federal judiciary, with all the many flaws and embarrassments in that process.

Up to a point, there's reason to hope for considerable improvement this time around. In contrast to the nasty and even brutal fights over the nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, the questioning of Ginsburg is expected to remain calm, civil and dispassionate.To some extent, this sharp change reflects the wide and bipartisan support Ginsburg enjoys on Capitol Hill in contrast to the polarization generated by the Bork and Thomas nominations. Let's hope the change also reflects the extent to which the Senate has learned that hysterical attempts to demonize nominees can hurt the legislative as well as the judicial branch of government.

In contrast to this improvement, this week's hearings indirectly draw attention to a serious shortcoming. While the Ginsburg nomination is being handled fairly expeditiously, Washington drags its feet in filling a long list of other vacancies in the federal judiciary. Though the White House is mostly to blame, the Senate also deserves plenty of criticism.

With vacancies in 126 of the 828 federal judgeships, President Clinton has yet to fill even one of them.

Those figures reflect the slow start for which Clinton has been so widely criticized in filling a number of other positions in his new administration. But once the Senate does receive a nomination, it is often notoriously slow to act.

As recently as last August, the Senate Judiciary Committee was taking an average of 102 days to act on nominations to the federal courts. Though that slow pace is inexcusable, at least it's an improvement on the 123 days the committee was taking in 1988 - a pace three times longer than before.

Until the vacant court posts are filled, other judges will have to work longer and harder. As a result, the quality of justice is bound to decline because of increasingly lengthy times needed to bring cases to trial.

In the legal profession, it's axiomatic that justice delayed is justice denied. Washington needs to be told that justice can be denied not only by courts that are slow to act but also by politicians who are slow to fill vacancies in the judiciary.