Sunday, May 03, 2009

Justice Souter Retires

After 19 years, Justice David Souter has decided to leave the bench at age 69. Linda Greenhouse in today's Sunday Times, has an admiring portrait of the somewhat eccentric, reclusive and scholarly New Hampshire jurist who even as he was ill at ease in the public aspects of his office was intellectually very well equipped to be an associate justice.

For years now, Justice Souter had come to be seen as a reliable vote on the side of the court's liberal justices and despite being acknowledged as a keen intellect, his tenure on the court will likely be seen as unexceptional. Unlike a Scalia, he was not an icon for any particularly staunch philosophical view of constitutional interpretation. He did not occupy a pragmatic (sometimes indecipherable) middle in the way of Kennedy which makes him the obsessive focus of court watchers in every close case. And unlike Justice Brennan (whom he replaced) he was not a coalition builder with any penchant for shaping close opinions that could garner a majority for his preferred outcomes. Instead, Justice Souter will most likely be remembered as an independent-minded elder Bush appointee who upset Republican expectations of a reliable conservative vote for Scalia and surprisingly reaffirmed the constitutionality of the court's previous abortion decisions in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992).

An excerpt:
This pattern gave rise to a widespread view of Justice Souter as a misfit or a loner, not quite in touch with modern life. But to focus on his eccentricities — his daily lunch of yogurt and an apple, core and all; the absence of a computer in his personal office — is to miss the essence of a man who in fact is perfectly suited to his job, just not to its trappings. His polite but persistent questioning of lawyers who appear before the court displays his meticulous preparation and his mastery of the case at hand and the cases relevant to it. Far from being out of touch with the modern world, he has simply refused to surrender to it control over aspects of his own life that give him deep contentment: hiking, sailing, time with old friends, reading history.

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