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David Souter

In office
October 3, 1990[1] – June 29, 2009
Nominated by George H. W. Bush
Preceded by William J. Brennan, Jr.
Succeeded by Sonia M. Sotomayor

In office
May 25, 1990 – October 9, 1990
Nominated by George H. W. Bush
Preceded by Hugh H. Bownes
Succeeded by Norman H. Stahl

In office
Appointed by John H. Sununu

In office
Appointed by Meldrim Thomson, Jr.

In office
Appointed by Meldrim Thomson, Jr.
Preceded by Warren B. Rudman

In office
Appointed by Warren B. Rudman

Born September 17, 1939 (1939-09-17) (age 70)
Melrose, Massachusetts
Alma mater Harvard College
Magdalen College, Oxford
Harvard Law School
Religion Episcopalian

David Hackett Souter (pronounced /ˈsuːtər/; born September 17, 1939) served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1990 until his retirement on June 29, 2009. Appointed by Republican President George H. W. Bush to fill the seat vacated by William J. Brennan, Jr., Souter was the only Justice with extensive prior court experience outside of a federal appeals court; he had served as a prosecutor, a state's attorney general, and as a judge on state trial and appellate courts.[2] Souter sat on both the Rehnquist and Roberts courts,[3] and was regarded as a liberal by conservatives; others, however, felt he did not fit squarely into any ideological camp.[2] Following Souter's retirement announcement, Democratic President Barack Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor as his successor.[4]


Early life and education

Souter was born in Melrose, Massachusetts on September 17, 1939, the only child of Joseph Alexander Souter (1904–1976) and Helen Adams Hackett Souter (1907–1995).[5][6] At age 11, he moved with his family to their farm in Weare, New Hampshire.[5]

Souter attended Concord High School in New Hampshire and went on to Harvard College, concentrating in philosophy and writing a senior thesis on the legal positivism of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the famous Supreme Court justice. In 1961, he graduated from Harvard magna cum laude as a member of Phi Beta Kappa.[7] He was selected as a Rhodes Scholar and earned an M.A. from Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1963. He then entered Harvard Law School, graduating in 1966.

Early career

After two years as an associate at the law firm of Orr & Reno in Concord, New Hampshire (1966 to 1968), Souter realized he disliked private practice,[5] and began his lifelong career in public service by accepting a position as an Assistant Attorney General of New Hampshire in 1968. As Assistant Attorney General he prosecuted criminal cases in the courts. In 1971, Warren Rudman, then the Attorney General of New Hampshire, selected Souter to be the Deputy Attorney General. Souter succeeded Rudman as the New Hampshire Attorney General in 1976.

In 1978, with the support of his friend Rudman, Souter was named an Associate Justice of the Superior Court of New Hampshire.[5] As a judge on the Superior Court he heard cases in two counties, and was noted for his tough sentencing.[5] With four years of trial court experience, Souter was appointed to the New Hampshire Supreme Court as an Associate Justice in 1983. Later, Souter was passed over for an appointment as Chief Justice by New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu in favor of a longer-serving associate justice, and considered leaving the court.[citation needed]

Shortly after George H. W. Bush was sworn in as President, he nominated Souter for a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. Souter had had seven years of judicial experience at the appellate level, four years at the trial court level, and ten years with the Attorney General's office. He was confirmed by unanimous consent of the Senate on April 27, 1990.[8]

U.S. Supreme Court appointment

President George H. W. Bush originally considered appointing Clarence Thomas to Brennan's seat, but decided that Thomas did not have enough experience as a judge.[9] Warren Rudman, who had since been elected a senator, and former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu, then chief of staff to President George H. W. Bush, suggested Souter, and they were instrumental in his nomination and confirmation to the Supreme Court. Prior to this time, few observers outside of New Hampshire knew who Souter was,[10] although he had reportedly been on Reagan's short list of nominees for the Supreme Court seat that eventually went to Anthony Kennedy).

Souter was seen as a "stealth justice" whose professional record in the state courts provoked little real controversy, and provided very little "paper trail" [11] on issues of U.S. Constitutional law. President Bush saw this lack of a paper trail as a positive for Souter, because one of President Reagan's nominees, Bork, had recently been rejected by the Senate partially because of the availability of his extensive written opinions on controversial issues.[12] Bush nominated Souter on July 25, 1990 claiming that he did not know Souter's stances on abortion, affirmative action, or other issues.[5][13]

Senate confirmation hearings were held beginning on September 13, 1990. The National Organization for Women opposed Souter's nomination and held a rally outside of the Senate during his confirmation hearings.[5] The president of NOW, Molly Yard, testified that Souter would "end... freedom for women in this country."[14] Souter was also opposed by the NAACP, which urged its 500,000 members to write letters to their senators asking them to vote no on the nomination.[15] In Souter's opening statement before the Judiciary Committee of the Senate he summed up the lessons he had learned as a judge of the New Hampshire courts:

The first lesson, simple as it is, is that whatever court we are in, whatever we are doing, whether we are in a trial court or an appellate court, at the end of our task some human being is going to be affected. Some human life is going to be changed in some way by what we do, whether we do it as trial judges or whether we do it as appellate judges, as far removed from the trial arena as it is possible to be...And so we had better use every power of our minds and our hearts and our beings to get those rulings right.[16]

Despite the opposition, Souter won an easy confirmation compared to those of later Republican appointees.[17] The Senate Judiciary Committee reported out the nomination by a vote of 14–3, the Senate confirmed the nomination by a vote of 90-9, and Souter took his seat shortly thereafter, on October 9, 1990.

The nine senators voting against Souter included Ted Kennedy and John Kerry from Souter's neighboring state of Massachusetts. These senators, along with seven others, painted Souter as a right-winger in the mold of Robert Bork. They based their claim on Souter's friendships with many conservative politicians in New Hampshire.

An opinion article by The Wall Street Journal some ten years after the Souter nomination called Souter a "liberal jurist" and said that Rudman took "pride in recounting how he sold Mr. Souter to gullible White House chief of staff John Sununu as a confirmable conservative. Then they both sold the judge to President Bush, who wanted above all else to avoid a confirmation battle." [18] Rudman wrote in his memoir that he had "suspected all along" that Souter would not "overturn activist liberal precedents."[5] Sununu later said that he had "a lot of disappointment" about Souter's positions on the court and would have preferred him to be more similar to Justice Antonin Scalia.[5]

U.S. Supreme Court career

Souter opposed having cameras in the Supreme Court during oral arguments because he said questions would be taken out of context by the media and the proceedings would be politicized. "The judiciary is not a political institution," he said, "nor is it part of the entertainment industry."[19]

He has also served as the court's designated representative to Congress on at least one occasion, testifying before committees of that body about the court's needs for additional funding to refurbish its building and for other projects.[5]

Expected conservatism

At the time of Souter's appointment, John Sununu assured President Bush and conservatives that Souter would be a "home run" for conservatism.[12] In his testimony before the Senate, he was thought by conservatives to be a strict constructionist on constitutional matters, however, he portrayed himself as moderate who disliked radical change and who attached a high importance to precedent.[12][20] However, in the state attorney general's office and as a state Supreme Court judge, he had never been tested on matters of federal law.[9]

Initially, from 1990 to 1993, Souter tended to be a conservative-leaning justice, although not as conservative as Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas or William Rehnquist. In Souter's first year, Souter and Scalia voted alike close to 85 percent of the time; Souter voted with Kennedy and O'Connor about 97 percent of the time.[citation needed] The symbolic turning point came in two cases in 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey,[12] in which the Court reaffirmed the essential holding in Roe v. Wade, and Lee v. Weisman, in which Souter voted against allowing prayer at a high school graduation ceremony. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Anthony Kennedy considered overturning Roe and upholding all the restrictions at issue in Casey. Souter considered upholding all the restrictions but still was uneasy about overturning Roe. After consulting with O'Connor, however, the three (who came to be known as the "troika") developed a joint opinion that upheld all the restrictions in the Casey case except for the mandatory notification of a husband while asserting the essential holding of Roe, that a right to an abortion is protected by the Constitution.

After the appointment of Clarence Thomas, Souter moved to the middle.[10] By the late 1990s, Souter began to align himself more with Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg on rulings, although as of 1995, he sided on more occasions with the more liberal[21] justice, John Paul Stevens, than either Breyer or Ginsburg, both Clinton appointees.[12] O'Connor began to move to the center. On the abortion issue, Souter began to vote to override restrictions he believed in back in 1992. On death penalty cases, worker rights cases, criminal rights cases, and other issues, Souter began voting with the liberals in the court. So while appointed by a Republican president and thus expected to be conservative,[22] Souter came to be considered part of the liberal wing of the court. Because of this, many conservatives view the Souter appointment as a major error on the part of the Bush administration and have gone on to intensely scrutinize future potential Republican appointees on the standard of whether they would be reliable conservatives. For example, after widespread speculation that President George W. Bush intended to appoint Alberto Gonzales - whose perceived views on affirmative action and abortion drew criticism - to the court, some conservative Senate staffers popularized the slogan that "Gonzales is Spanish for Souter".[23]



Planned Parenthood v. Casey

In 1992's Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Souter wrote that Roe v. Wade should not be overturned because it would be "a surrender to political pressure... So to overrule under fire in the absence of the most compelling reason to re-examine a watershed decision would subvert the Court's legitimacy beyond any serious question."[12] Justice Scalia dissented, writing that "the Imperial Judiciary lives."[10]

Bush v. Gore

In 2000, Souter voted and dissented along with three other justices in Bush v. Gore to allow the presidential election recount to continue while the majority voted to end the recount. This allowed the declaration of Bush as the winner of the election in Florida to stand.

Jeffrey Toobin wrote, controversially, of Souter's reaction to Bush v. Gore in his 2007 book The Nine:

Toughened, or coarsened, by their worldly lives, the other dissenters could shrug and move on, but Souter couldn’t. His whole life was being a judge. He came from a tradition where the independence of the judiciary was the foundation of the rule of law. And Souter believed Bush v. Gore mocked that tradition. His colleagues’ actions were so transparently, so crudely partisan that Souter thought he might not be able to serve with them anymore. Souter seriously considered resigning. For many months, it was not at all clear whether he would remain as a justice. That the Court met in a city he loathed made the decision even harder. At the urging of a handful of close friends, he decided to stay on, but his attitude toward the Court was never the same. There were times when David Souter thought of Bush v. Gore and wept.

The above passage was, however, disputed by Souter's long-time friend, Warren Rudman. Rudman told the New Hampshire Union Leader that while Souter was discomfited by Bush v. Gore, the idea that he had broken down into tears over the matter was not true.[24]

Relationship with other justices

Souter worked well with Sandra Day O'Connor and had a good relationship with both her and her husband during her days on the court.[5] He generally has a good working relationship with each justice on the court, but he is particularly fond of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and he considers John Paul Stevens to be the "smartest" justice.[5]


Long before the election of President Obama, Souter had expressed a desire to leave Washington, D.C. and return to his native New Hampshire.[25][26] The election of a Democratic president in 2008 made Souter more inclined to retire, but he did not want to create a situation in which there would be multiple vacancies at once.[25] Souter apparently became satisfied that no other justices planned to retire at the end of the Supreme Court's term in June 2009.[25] As a result, in mid-April 2009 he privately notified the White House of his intent to retire from the Supreme Court at the conclusion of its business for that term.[27] Souter formally submitted a resignation letter to Obama on May 1, effective at the end of the Supreme Court's term. Later that day President Obama made an unscheduled appearance during the daily White House press briefing to publicly announce Souter's retirement.[28] On May 26, 2009, Obama announced his selection of federal appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor as the nominee; she was confirmed on August 6.

On June 29, 2009, the last day of the Court's 2008-2009 term, Chief Justice Roberts read a letter to Souter that had been signed by all eight of his colleagues as well as retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, thanking him for his service, and Souter read a letter to his colleagues reciprocating their good wishes.[29]

Personal life

Once named by The Washington Post as one of Washington's 10 Most Eligible Bachelors,[5] Justice Souter has never married, though he was once engaged.[30]

According to Jeffrey Toobin's 2007 book The Nine, Souter has a decidedly low-tech lifestyle. He writes with a fountain pen, does not use e-mail, has no cell phone or answering machine. While he was serving on the Supreme Court, he preferred to drive back to New Hampshire for the summer where he enjoyed mountain climbing.[5] Souter also did his own home repairs, and spent five hours fixing his roof in 2008.[31] In early August 2009 Souter moved from his family farm house in Weare to a Cape Cod-style single-floor home on two well manicured acres in Hopkinton, New Hampshire, an upscale suburb adjacent to the state capitol of Concord. Souter told a disappointed Weare neighbor that the two-story family farmhouse was not structurally sound enough to support the thousands of books he owns, and that he wished to live on one level.[32]

Over the years, Souter has served on hospital boards and civic committees.[citation needed] He is a former honorary co-chair of the We the People National Advisory Committee.[33]

See also


  1. ^ "Federal Judicial Center: David Souter". 2009-12-12. Retrieved 2009-12-12. 
  2. ^ a b Times topics, David H. Souter, New York Times
  3. ^ Press Release, February 13, 2009
  4. ^ Sherman, Mark Souter says Goodbye to the Supreme Court, Washington Examiner, May 5, 2009
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Yarbrough, Tinsley E. "David Hackett Souter: Traditional Republican on the Rehnquist Court", Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0195159330
  6. ^ Biography David Hackett Souter, Cornell University Law School
  7. ^ Supreme Court Justices Who Are Phi Beta Kappa Members, Phi Beta Kappa website
  8. ^ Thomas, Library of Congress Nomination records, Nomination: PN1061-101
  9. ^ a b Greenberg, Jan Crawford Clarence Thomas: A Silent Justice Speaks Out, ABC News, September 30, 2007
  10. ^ a b c Greenhouse, Linda Souter Anchoring the Court's New Center,New York Times, July 3, 1992
  11. ^ Rosen, Jeffrey "Stealth Justice", New York Times, May 1, 2009
  12. ^ a b c d e f Ponnuru, Ramesh Empty Souter-Supreme Court Justice David Souter, National Review, September 11, 1995
  13. ^ US Supreme Court,
  14. ^ Kamen, Al For Liberals, Easy Does It With Roberts, Washington Post, September 19, 2005
  15. ^ Molotsky, Irvin N.A.A.C.P. Urges Souter's Defeat, Citing Earlier Statements on Race, New York Times, September 22, 1990
  16. ^ Senate Committee on the Judiciary: Senate Hearing 101-1263, Hearings on the Nomination of David H. Souter, September 13, 1990.
  17. ^ Taranto, James and Leo,Leonard "Presidential Leadership", Wall Street Journal Books, 2004,
  18. ^ On Cameras in Supreme Court, Souter Says, 'Over My Dead Body', New York Times, March 30, 1996
  19. ^ Roosevelt, Kermit. Justice CincinnatusDavid Souter—a dying breed, the Yankee Republican, Slate, 2009-05-01.
  20. ^ Rosen, Jeffrey The Dissenter: Majority of One, Stevens at the Supreme Court, New York Times, September 23, 2007
  21. ^ (see Segal-Cover score)
  22. ^ Ponnuru, Ramesh Judging Gonzales, National Review OnLine, February 11, 2003
  23. ^ a b Did Bush v. Gore Make Justice Souter Weep?, Wall Street Journal Law Blog, September 6, 2007
  24. ^ a b c Totenberg, Nina Supreme Court Justice Souter To Retire, NPR, April 30, 2009
  25. ^ Robert Barnes, Souter Reportedly Planning to Retire From High Court, Washington Post, May 1, 2009
  26. ^ Baker, Peter and Nagourney, Adam Sotomayor Pick a Product of Lessons From Past Battles, New York Times, May 28, 2009 |accessdate=May 29, 2009}}
  27. ^ Obama Announces Souter Retirement,New York Times, Caucus Blog, May 1, 2009
  28. ^ Philllips, Kate Souter and Justices Exchange Farewells, "The Caucus blog", June 29, 2009
  29. ^ Totenberg, Nina Supreme Court Justice Souter To Retire,, Apr 30, 2009
  30. ^ A No-Frills Embrace for a Low-Key Justice, New York Times, May 3, 2009
  31. ^ Off the Bench, Souter Leaves Farmhouse Behind, New York Times, August 3, 2009
  32. ^ National Advisory Committee

Further reading

  • Abraham, Henry J., Justices and Presidents: A Political History of Appointments to the Supreme Court. 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). ISBN 0-19-506557-3.
  • Cushman, Clare, The Supreme Court Justices: Illustrated Biographies, 1789–1995. 2nd ed. (Supreme Court Historical Society; Congressional Quarterly Books, 2001). ISBN 1568021267, ISBN 9781568021263.
  • Frank, John P., The Justices of the United States Supreme Court: Their Lives and Major Opinions (Leon Friedman and Fred L. Israel, editors). (Chelsea House Publishers, 1995). ISBN 0791013774, ISBN 978-0791013779.
  • Hall, Kermit L., ed. The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). ISBN 0195058356, ISBN 9780195058352.
  • Martin, Fenton S., and Goehlert, Robert U., The U.S. Supreme Court: A Bibliography. (Congressional Quarterly Books, 1990). ISBN 0871875543.
  • Urofsky, Melvin I., The Supreme Court Justices: A Biographical Dictionary. (New York: Garland Publishing 1994). ISBN 0815311761, ISBN 978-0815311768.

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Hugh Henry Bownes
Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
Succeeded by
Norman H. Stahl
Preceded by
William J. Brennan
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Sonia Sotomayor
United States order of precedence
Preceded by
Sandra Day O'Connor
Retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
United States order of precedence
Retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
Succeeded by
Timothy Geithner
Secretary of the Treasury


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