Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Discreet Charm of David Souter

I'm currently reading Jeffrey Toobin's excellent book on the U.S. Supreme Court, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court. In addition to providing keen analysis of all the major Supreme Court decisions that have been decided over the past twenty years, Toobin recounts some truly entertaining yarns about each justice. To be sure, there were some real characters on the Rehnquist Court -- from the regal Sun Belt grande dame Sandra Day O'Connor to the pugnacious Italian bulldog Antonin Scalia. But I was surprised to find mirthful hilarity in the stories Toobin recounts about the Supreme Court's most reclusive Justice, David Souter.

Nominated to the Court by President George H.W. Bush on July 25, 1990, Souter was replacing the seat vacated by liberal Warren Court icon William J. Brennan. The former New Hampshire Supreme Court justice was confirmed by the Senate 90 to 9, despite the fact that many Republicans had reservations about Souter's conservative credentials. Souter left little in terms of a paper trail to give conservatives a solid idea of how he would vote on the most important issues for their base.

Souter ended up being a massive disappointment for the Republicans, and he will be perhaps the last justice to make it onto the Court without being subjected to an ideological litmus test (which effectively guarantees that a nominee will vote according to the party -- Republican or Democratic -- line). On all the major social issues, including abortion but also affirmative action and gay rights, Souter has consistently voted with the meager "liberal" bloc on the Court (consisting of Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer). Although many Republicans cast Souter's jurisprudence as a "betrayal" of their party, in fact his tenure on the Court can be seen as fitting into the classic New England Republican mold: supporting a robust federal government, keeping church and state issues distinctly separate, and defending individual civil liberties against repressive state measures.

That Souter should remain true to an "older" ideal of Republican politics (before the South- and Sun Belt-led hijacking of the party to serve evangelical, power-hungry interests) is perhaps unsurprising. For Souter leads a simple, almost ascetic life as a 68-year-old bachelor. Unconcerned with the trappings of modern technology, Souter has written only with a fountain pen in his professional work and was once given a television set but never plugged it in. Toobin rightly characterizes Souter's manners as reflecting the "habits of a gentleman from another century" -- namely, the eighteenth century inhabited by the likes of John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. At the Supreme Court, Souter usually leaves the lights off in his office and reads briefs by sunlight. And he eats the same thing for lunch every day: an apple, including the core and seeds, with a cup of yogurt.

Toobin relates two stories about Souter that I'm compelled to share with you here. They reveal a dry wit and measured personality that seem out of step with his own party's current ideological partisanship and Manichean "good versus evil" worldview. They reveal what I'm calling the discreet charm of David Souter.

On bachelorhood

[Sandra Day O'Connor] had agenda with Souter. She wanted to get him married off. According to her biographer Joan Biskupic, O'Connor boasted about her matchmaking skills, claiming she had once been known as the "Yenta of Paradise Valley," her posh neighborhood in Phoenix. She invited Souter to many of her parties, including one, early in Souter's tenure, that featured "Fajitas and frivolity...Dress: Country Western or Effete Eastern." Over the years, practically everyone Souter knew in Washington, including First Lady Barbara Bush, tried to fix him up. None succeeded. One of his fellow justices once prevailed on Souter to take a woman out to dinner, and she reported back that she thought the evening had gone very well -- until the end. Souter took her home, told her what a good time he had, then added: "Let's do this again next year."

On being mistaken for Stephen Breyer

It was...a running joke at the Court that outsiders frequently mistook Souter and Breyer for each other. No one could really understand why this happened, because the two bore little resemblance. One day when Souter was making his usual solo drive from Washington to New Hampshire, he stopped for lunch in Massachusetts. A stranger and his wife came up to him and asked, "Aren't you on the Supreme Court?"

Souter said he was.

"You're Justice Breyer, right?" said the man.

Rather than embarrass the fellow, Souter simply nodded and exchanged pleasantries, until he was asked an unexpected question.

"Justice Breyer, what's the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?"

The justice thought for a while, then said, "Well, I'd have to say it's the privilege of serving with David Souter."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great stuff!