The news of Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s retirement rekindled my longstanding love for this discreet, low-key man. The love began when I became obsessed for a brief period with the U.S. Supreme Court in the aftermath of the 2000 election as it became clear that the Bush v. Gore case as would essentially decide the fate of the presidency. Knowing almost nothing about the Court, I decided to read a book by former clerk Edward Lazarus called Closed Chambers. In it, he bursts the myth of the Court as a rarefied environment of collegial relationships between justices and clerks mainly concerned with interpreting the law with integrity. According to Lazarus, who clerked for Justice Harry Blackmun, a “liberal” Nixon appointee who authored Roe v. Wade, an ideological rivalry reigned instead, and it was most pronounced between the clerks: on one side were those who worked for “liberal” justices like Blackmun, Thurgood Marshall, and William Brennan; on the other were those who worked for “conservative” justices like Antonin Scalia, Byron White, and William Rehnquist.
Souter ascended to the court in this environment, to replace the retiring William Brennan. Brennan was known as one of the greats of the Warren Court of the 1960′s, which had expanded individual rights with its broad interpretations of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. In 1990, when George H.W. Bush nominated Souter, liberals and conservatives expected he would join the group on the court that wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade, though he had made no rulings about the case as a New Hampshire Supreme Court judge. Most of what was known about the quiet judge and former Rhodes Scholar from New Hampshire was that he was a law and order type who had never been married.
And then Souter joined the court and voted with the “liberals” who upheld the fundamental holding of Roe v. Wade when it was challenged by a case called Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. Clarence Thomas he was not.
Souter is by all accounts an individualistic fellow who is impatient with Washington culture and spends a lot of time in his native New England. According to Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, which I plan to read this summer, Souter almost resigned from the court after Bush v. Gore, where his “conservative” colleagues abandoned their longstanding commitment to states rights and narrow interpretation of the equal protection clause. What kept Souter on the court, it seems, was the threat that Bush would appoint someone in his place. Now that Obama is president, Souter can flee.
My classmate just told me a great story about Souter that comes out of The Nine and illustrates why he seems awesome. Souter was at a gas station in New Hampshire and was spotted by a guy who recognized him as a Supreme Court Justice. “You’re Stephen Breyer, right?” the guy said. Souter responded in the affirmative, thinking, whatever. Then the guy asked Souter what his favorite part of being a Supreme Court Justice was, and Souter responded, “Working with David Souter.”
Anyway, cheers to David Souter, one of my many old man crushes. I’ll never be able to clerk for him, as was once my dream, so I hope he has many restful years at his house in New Hampshire.