- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - For a guy who often can’t wait to leave town and is said to be considering retirement, Supreme Court Justice David Souter gives the impression he’s staying put for a while.

The 69-year-old Souter has not said a word about his plans, though he is widely considered to be among the justices who are more likely to retire soon.

In a rare public appearance in Washington this past week, Souter seemed at ease in front of his audience, including a bank of television cameras, and at home in the city he loves to hate. He offered advice about lobbying Congress and even oblique criticism of the Bush administration.

Talking about the importance of teaching history and the humanities in general, Souter displayed a warmth and wit that is at odds with his image as a Spartan, taciturn New Englander.

“Where history’s understanding is missing, cynicism will take its place,” Souter said at a meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The audience was made up largely of teachers and administrators in the humanities, although the cameras at the back of room suggested there was more than academic interest in capturing the words and images of the most private justice.

With virtually no evidence to go on, it has become conventional wisdom in Washington that Souter is among the three justices most likely to retire soon. The others are his older colleagues on the court’s liberal side _ 88-year-old John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who turns 76 on Sunday.

Stevens has said repeatedly that he still enjoys the work and relatively light caseload. Ginsburg, a month removed from cancer surgery, has said she plans to serve into her 80s. Ginsburg told law students Friday in Boston that there could be an opening on the court soon, but didn’t hint at who might be leaving.

Souter has said nothing about staying or going. He claims to have the world’s best job in the world’s worst city and returns every summer to the same farmhouse in New Hampshire where he has lived for nearly 60 years.

Unlike the other eight justices, he has yet to hire law clerks for the term that begins in October. But then Souter always is among the last of the justices to select the young lawyers who will help him wade through the roughly 8,000 cases filed in a year.

He made one crack about his life in Washington the other day, noting that the demands of being a justice leave time for little else during the nine months that the justices hear and decide cases.

“When the term of court starts I undergo a sort of annual intellectual lobotomy and it lasts until the following summer when I sort of cram what I can into the summertime,” Souter said to laughter.

His former law clerks say they try to appeal to Souter’s sense of history to ensure he doesn’t retire soon.

“We have suggested to him that history has put him in a place where he can be a force for good and that we would like him to continue to do that,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who worked for Souter in 1999 and 2000.

Souter was appointed to the court in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, after just a few months as a federal appeals court judge, but with many years experience as a prosecutor, attorney general, trial judge and state Supreme Court justice in New Hampshire.

Virtually unknown outside his home state, he was viewed warily both by liberals and conservatives. Liberals feared that his appointment by an abortion opponent would help spell the end of the guarantee of abortion rights. Conservatives worried that in his praise for the liberal lion he succeeded, Justice William Brennan, Souter was charting a much more moderate course than they would have liked or expected from a Republican nominee.

Eighteen years later, Souter is firmly among the court’s liberals.

But he has resisted the spotlight that has attracted liberal and conservative justices alike.

“He doesn’t believe in overexposure,” said Thomas Rath, Souter’s longtime friend from New Hampshire.

Rath and the justice’s other friends and former clerks regard Souter as an excellent storyteller with a wonderful sense of humor.

“He doesn’t fit what I think most people would assume, that he’s Silent Cal, the Calvin Coolidge-type New Englander,” said Meir Feder, a New York lawyer who worked for Souter during his first Supreme Court term.

Yet not even those who know him well profess to have any idea when he might give up his seat on the court. “Even if I knew, I wouldn’t share it with you. That’s one reason we’re friends,” said Rath, whose daughter held the Bible that Souter used when he took his oath to join the court.

Discretion is important to Souter, which is why his talk this past week steered clear of his colleagues and issues before the court.

In emphasizing the importance of an education that stresses culture and history, he did suggest that the Bush administration might have learned more about the Muslim world before leading the nation into war in two Islamic countries.

“We know a lot more about military defense than we know about the relationships among the divisions within the Muslim world. We have a State Department that I have read frequently does not have very many Arabic speakers in it,” Souter said.

When asked how to approach members of Congress to ask for more money for the humanities, Souter suggested focusing on the history buffs in Congress.

But he prefaced his advice with a self-deprecating comment about the failure of judges to persuade Congress to raise their pay.

“You should know that I’ve been on the judicial salary committee for the last couple of years and the lesson to be learned from that is,” Souter said, “whatever I tell you, do the opposite.”

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