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Souter bids goodbye to court colleagues

For just a few minutes on Monday, retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter opened up, saying in public how much his life had been enriched by the strong bonds forged with his fellow justices.
Supreme Court What's Left
Supreme Court Justice David Souter speaks during a dedication ceremony at the State Supreme Courthouse in Concord, N.H., on July 9, 2008.Jim Cole / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It took Justice David Souter's final day at the Supreme Court to bring him into the limelight after nearly two decades in Washington.

A New England Republican who became a member of the court's liberal bloc, the typically reticent Souter opened up a bit Monday, saying how much the strong bonds forged with his fellow justices had meant to him.

At the close of the morning's business, Souter read aloud from a letter to his colleagues, saying that friendship "has held us together" despite sometimes strong disagreements.

As it has for much of his tenure, disagreement was the order of Souter's last day, with the justice on the losing end of a 5-4 decision in favor of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., who argued they were unfairly denied promotions because of their race.

Souter, 69, joined the court at a moment when it appeared the court could overrule its landmark abortion rights decision, Roe v. Wade.

Instead, in 1992, in what remains probably his most noted work, Souter joined in a ruling reaffirming a woman's right to an abortion. The decision bitterly disappointed conservatives and elated liberals who viewed Souter warily when he was named by President George H.W. Bush.

Eight years later, he was one of four liberal justices who dissented from the court's ruling in Bush v. Gore, which cemented George W. Bush as the victor in the 2000 election.

On Monday, Souter was replying to a letter from all his fellow justices, who wrote that "we have all felt a profound sense of loss. ... For nearly 20 years, the court has had the benefit of your wisdom, civility and dedication."

"We have agreed or contended with each other over those things that matter to decent people in a civil society," wrote Souter.

WASHINGTON - OCTOBER 31: Justice David H. Souter poses for photographers at the U.S. Supreme Court October 31, 2005 in Washington DC. Earlier in the day U.S. President George W. Bush nominated judge Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O'Connor who is retiring once her replacement is confirmed by the Senate. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** David H. SouterMark Wilson / Getty Images North America

To the extent outsiders can determine the relationships among the nine justices, the sentiments on both sides appeared heartfelt.

"Justice Souter has been and is enormously respected for his integrity, his professionalism, his civility and his decency," said longtime Washington lawyer Theodore Olson.

Olson was solicitor general in the administration of President George W. Bush and has argued dozens of cases at the Supreme Court during Souter's time at the court.

As various justices made the rounds of Washington's social scene, wrote books, appeared on television, and even donned opera costumes for a night, Souter had no use for the benefits that come with celebrity in the nation's capital.

Souter maintained a small apartment in the city's southwest quadrant, close to a military installation where he would jog regularly in the evenings.

At the end of each Supreme Court term, he would quickly return to the New Hampshire home that has been in his family for generations.

"We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains," the justices wrote in their letter, which Chief Justice John Roberts read in court.

"Your generous letter has touched me more than I can say," Souter replied.