Associate Justice David Souter, 69, has announced that he will retire from the Court after 18 years. The announcement comes as a complete surprise because, at 69, Souter is one of the younger members of the Court and was not expected to retire before John Paul Stevens or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He is twenty years younger than Stevens, who appears intent on remaining on the Court at least for the rest of this term.
Souter was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. He was part of a pattern of nominees selected in part due to his low profile and uncontroversial history. Like Sandra Day O’Connor, there was little for democrats to attack in Souter’s history. He had a powerful supporter in John Sununu, Bush’s chief of staff. Yet, he proved far more liberal than anyone in the GOP imagined — becoming a lightening rod for the right who would later insist on ideological purity and almost robotic loyalty in the selection of Clarence Thomas, John Roberts, and Sam Alito.
This will now be the first (but probably not the last) nominee for Barack Obama. The nominee sweepstakes will now begin. One interesting prospect would be Diane Wood, who serves on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and taught at the University of Chicago when Obama was on the faculty. Wood would be a nod to Obama’s Chicago roots and would add a second woman to the Court. She would also present a relatively easy confirmation.
Sonia Sotomayor on the Second Circuit would be more controversial. She has a reputation for being something of an overbearing and at times hostile judge — the complete opposite of Justice Souter. She has many critics on and off the court.
I personally like Wood, but I would prefer Harold Koh, the former Dean at Yale Law School who would be the first Asian-American on the Court. He is one of the most brilliant academics in America. He would be more controversial and has already been targeted in his current confirmation hearings for a position in the Administration. However, he would be a prize worth fighting for.
Cass Sunstein has also been suggested. However, civil libertarians would view his nomination as another disappointment and would likely oppose him. He was one of the earliest voices against an prosecution for war crimes and is viewed as favorable (or at least not particularly opposed) to some of the Bush policies on surveillance and other controversial national security programs.
The loss of Souter will be felt by Court watchers. I was once asked who I would keep on the Court if I had my druthers. I mentioned Souter because he was one of the few members who did not believe that he was anointed rather than appointed to the Court. Souter is a remarkably self-effacing and gentle person. He is universally liked by the other justices and Court staff. I particularly appreciated that, unlike some of his colleagues, Souter never sought public acclaim or attention. He worked very hard at getting decisions right. While he was more liberal than many Republicans wanted, he was not as predictable as some on the Court. He remained more of a jurist than a purist in his decision; trying to resolve issues without ideological flourishes or grandstanding.
I am not surprised about this retirement in one sense. Souter always maintained his personality and persona separate from the Court. He is an intensely private man. I always viewed him as the quintessential hardy East Coast Yankee stock: quiet, strong, and principled. While his departure will not result in a great shift on the Court or the loss of a dominant voice, his departure will remove someone who bought great civility and dignity to the Court. His was a reassuring voice at a time of shrill ideology and controversy. He will be remembered well for his time on the Court and is a towering example of how the first George Bush (who regretted his selection) inadvertently made the right decision for the wrong reason.
There is a very funny story about how Souter and Justice Breyer were routinely confused for one another. It was…a running joke at the Court that outsiders frequently mistook Souter and Breyer for each other. On one trip back to New Hampshire, a couple went up to Souter at a roadside dinner and mistook him for Breyer. Souter went along rather than embarrass them and correct. He was then asked, “Justice Breyer, what’s the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?” He reportedly thought deeply and responded, “Well, I’d have to say it’s the privilege of serving with David Souter.”
I would have to agree.