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Low-Key Style May Be Challenged

SUPREME COURT: SOUTER HEARING

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SUPREME Court nominee David H. Souter heads into Senate confirmation hearings tomorrow barely any better understood than when President Bush plucked him from the somewhat obscure United States Court of Appeals for the First District and thrust him into the national spotlight two months ago. The LEXIS service (a data base on legal matters) was bombarded with a 600 percent increase in computer searches of New Hampshire court files in July as the media, legal community, and Senate staff began digging for clues to the workings of Judge Souter's legal mind.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee still finds itself having to craft questions it hopes are air-tight enough to force Souter to say what the record doesn't: how he might rule on controversial issues of the day - such as abortion, church-state separation, and civil rights.

Most observers say that if Souter and the Bush administration handlers who have drilled him in mock hearings have their way, he won't offer prejudgments on issues he hasn't confronted in court before.

``He's going to get confirmed,'' says Tom Korologos, a Capitol Hill lobbyist who was handled numerous court nominations for Republican administrations. ``But it's not going to be a piece of cake. They've got to dig deeper into who this person is.''

But both Republican and Democratic observers say the atmosphere for the Souter confirmation hearings, expected to last through next week, is already significantly more favorable than that of his immediate predecessors.

A drawn-out hearing is less likely than in other situations, since the Senate is facing a major budget battle as well as the the military crisis in the Mideast, suggests Ronald Collins, a visiting associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America.

Though many liberal groups have voiced concern about the Souter nomination, only the National Organization for Women has opposed him.

And last week, the American Bar Association's judicial screening panel gave Souter its unanimous top rating of ``well qualified.''

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