Video: Justice Souter to exit top court

NBC News
updated 5/1/2009 10:31:54 AM ET 2009-05-01T14:31:54

David Hackett Souter is not of this world. At least not the world many of us living in this nation's population centers experience on a daily basis in 2009.

His intellect is the stuff of folklore, and so is his personal life. He's been described as an almost Victorian figure, straining to maintain the lifestyle he prefers while the world changes around him. That he drives an automobile remains something of a wonder — his concession to changes in modern transportation — given that other aspects of his life and mindset seem borrowed from another century, and not the last one.

Souter was to President George H.W. Bush what Justice William Brennan was to President Eisenhower. Bush wanted a predictable conservative jurist without a paper trail. He got half of that, just as Ike did when trying to select a solid judge who agreed with his philosophy.

Immediately after his appointment to the court, those who ventured to Weare, New Hampshire in search of clues that would shed light on the nominee found a rather dark cabin filled with books. Stacks of them.

Peering through the windows as reporters do, they could not see a television inside the house. There wasn't one. There wasn't anything David Souter needed to know that he couldn't read about, or so the theory went.

Washington journalists, in requisite khakis and blazers, braved the blazing summer heat of New Hampshire to gather information on the taciturn, enigmatic, intellectual New Englander.

Hippie couple
Former high school classmates talked guardedly about their bookish, smart friend with the throwback charm. I was among those who read all of his available opinions to date back then, and I decided my favorite was the case, as I remember it, of the hippie couple who sued New Hampshire because they didn't feel they should be forced to ride around in their van fitted with license plates bearing the New Hampshire State slogan, "Live Free Or Die." They lost.

It didn't take long to realize President Bush had lost a big bet.

He'd been famously assured by then-Republican Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire that Souter would be a "home run" for the right, a lock-cinch, dependable Yankee conservative on the court. Souter morphed before their eyes into a Yankee liberal — or what passed for one, as the court was in the middle of a decided right turn during the Souter years. Bush's other pick, Clarence Thomas, did not disappoint.

Years later, Souter was reported to be profoundly disappointed at the Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, which effectively awarded the election to the son of the man who appointed him to the court. He was part of the four Justices in the minority.

During the Court term, Justice Souter works 12 hour days and lives in a small apartment not far from the Court. He has never liked the city.

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For that matter, he's never been much for computers, cellphones or other trappings of modern life. He writes his opinions longhand, in fountain pen, as John Marshall did in the early days of the Republic.

Meantime, back in the electronic world of 2009 America, an internet headline on a major website, posted within hours of the first report that he was retiring, breathlessly and incorrectly reported that Souter's departure will lead to a "shakeup" on the court.

Because Souter must be considered a dependable member of the court's left-of-center minority, President Obama's choice to replace him will not amount to any sort of net gain for the left — nor would replacements for what are generally considered to be the next two justices to depart, Stevens and Ginsburg.

But the quiet man from New Hampshire has accomplished one thing with his planned departure: he's proven once again that attempts to predict the behavior of the court and its justices can be a dicey business.

Perhaps it all goes back to "Live Free Or Die." When David Souter aims his car north to his beloved New Hampshire at the end of the court term, he will be, entering his eighth decade, a free man.

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