WASHINGTON — Is it possible that Justice David H. Souter has sensed what I have sensed in reading the liberals’ dutiful adieus to him, their judicial Benedict Arnold? They are all snickering behind their hands. Sure, he pleased them enormously by his 19 years of tergiversations against conservative jurisprudence, after being President George H. W. Bush’s “conservative” Supreme Court nominee. But through all Souter’s years here in Washington he revealed himself to be a stupendously self-absorbed oddball and not much else. He fell far short of the liberals’ conception of a progressive Supreme Court dissenter, to wit: a charismatic, outspoken, slightly outré intellectual on the model of William O. Douglas.
Souter has been, as the Washington Post puts it, notable for his “quirky independence in spurning the right.” The operative word here is “quirky.” It is not meant as a compliment. Our liberals admire eccentricity but not the eccentricity of a misanthropic loner. Thus, in every supposedly friendly retrospective that I have read of him since he informed the Democratic president that he, a Republican Supreme Court nominee, was retiring, the liberals have stressed his weirdness: the misfit, the loner, the guy whose luncheon consists of yogurt and an apple he eats “core and all.” That was the New York Times speaking. On the front page of its “Week in Review” section, the newspaper ran a huge picture of him from years ago wearing a silly plaid suit, the collar of his shirt vaguely reminiscent of Calvin Coolidge, his face expressionless, but his eyes large and glistening, like the caricatures one used to see of girls with huge Bambi-like eyes. Another Times picture shows him, coat-and tie, hastening past his ramshackle, unpainted, wooden farmhouse, situated at the end of an unmarked dirt road in rural New Hampshire. Some locals have thought it was abandoned.
It is a farmhouse his parents and grandparents inhabited and bequeathed to him, an only child, a bachelor, the Supreme Court’s “solitary soul,” as the Post subtly joshes. At every opportunity, the liberals write in their bon voyage reminiscences, Souter would flee Washington and drive his Volkswagen sedan to this hick hideout. He eschews the aeroplane, public appearances, and society in general. Now he is vacating his rented Southwest Washington apartment. He will not spend much time packing because, we are told by the amused liberals he never unpacked when he drove down from New Hampshire in 1990. He just kept his effects in boxes. So now back into those boxes he will dump his clunky shoes and his ratty old out-at-the-elbows sweaters before taking his last solitary ride back to the woods. There he likes to hike alone at night with a flashlight. I did not make this up. These are the details that the liberals have been relating about him as they recapitulate his career as a Republican-turned-progressive. As I say, they are snickering.
They have very little to say about Souter’s work on the court other than that he sided routinely with the liberal minority. I can understand their reticence. After conferring with scholars who follow the court, I can report that they recall not one opinion of his that was memorable for anything other than smugness. As one told me, Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissents have been “thought-provoking,” Justice John Paul Stevens’s “intelligent.” Souter in his dissents has been simply a liberal tag-a-long. There is something about him that is not quite adult. He asks questions persistently, the liberals say with a wink. Well so does a lost child.
It is said that Justice Souter is a “ferocious reader” (That from the Washington Post, perhaps again in jest. There is nothing ferocious about this milksop.) Supposedly he reads a great deal of history, but his rare public remarks give little evidence of it. In one of his occasionally remarked upon dissents he seems to be oblivious of history. Two years back he sided with the liberal minority in expressing the fear that Louisville, Kentucky might slide back into segregation, perhaps even Jim Crow, without citywide racial quotas in its schools. If history demonstrates anything it is that America is well beyond racial bigotry from government, whether local, state, or federal.
Souter’s bland years on the Court should remind us of the importance of experience in choosing our leaders. President Bush and his advisers might have thought it was clever of them to nominate a judge with almost no paper trail. After serving on the New Hampshire Supreme Court for seven years, Souter served just two months on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit before his nomination. But for almost two decades it has been clear that he is out of his depth. The troubling thought is that the president who is about to nominate Souter’s replacement is out of his depth too.
I began this column with a question. Does the departing justice realize that the liberals, whom he benefited, are snickering? The answer is no. As with much else, he is oblivious.