Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter on Wednesday warned that America’s civic core is floundering in an address to the nation’s judicial leaders, including two women considered potential successors for the retiring justice.
Mr. Souter said the nation’s troubles in educating citizens about the importance of democratic principles and the philosophy of divided government are a threat to democracy.
“It is being lost,” he said Wednesday afternoon at Georgetown Law School. “It is lost if it is not understood.”
Solicitor General Elena Kagan and 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Diane Wood, two of six people whom President Obama is considering for the high court, attended the speech. The White House also is looking at Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor and California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.
“The president is and has been very active in thinking through who the best nominee would be,” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Wednesday. “He has discussed the process with senators from both sides of the aisle.”
Mr. Gibbs said Mr. Obama made calls to Democratic and Republican senators Tuesday. Ms. Granholm visited the White House on Tuesday for a car fuels announcement, but it is not certain whether she talked with the president about the Supreme Court vacancy.
Mr. Obama tapped Ms. Kagan to be the administration’s chief counsel before the Supreme Court. She was previously dean of the Harvard Law School.
Some legal scholars have suggested that the president pick a woman to add balance to the bench, where men hold eight of the nine seats.
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the last judge to retire from the Supreme Court, said Wednesday that the gender question reminded her of a saying she used to share with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the high court’s sole female member.
“At the end of the day, we believe a wise old woman and a wise old man will reach the same conclusion,” Mrs. O’Connor said.
In his unscripted speech Wednesday, Mr. Souter recounted growing up in Weare, N.H., where he attended town hall meetings, “the most radical example of American democracy there is.”
He said that by the time he and his friends were taking civics courses, they were already well-versed in the philosophy of American democracy. By contrast, he noted a study that found about two-thirds of Americans cannot name the three branches of government.
Mr. Souter cited an anecdote about Benjamin Franklin, in which a lady in Philadelphia asked the Founding Father what type of government they had developed: a monarchy or a republic. Franklin responded: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Mr. Souter said he plans to help New Hampshire craft a new civics curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade when he retires at the end of the Supreme Court’s summer term.