In Praise Of Souter


I have to say I find the accounts of his personal life - the source of some ridicule and amusement in the past - to be moving. Here is an antidote to our current cult of contemporaneity, fame, celebrity and ideology. Souter's judicial philosophy - a modest, gradual, stare decisis conservatism - stands out as an emblem of a Yankee conservatism we need more, not less, of:

Souter's departure offers a timely reminder that when it comes to the courts, we need to be careful about our terms. Though Souter's decisions were welcomed by ideological and partisan liberals, they were judicially conservative decisions. In fact, his were among the only consistently conservative decisions the court has known for the last two decades.

The reason is that there is a difference between an ideological or movement conservative and a judicial conservative. Judicial conservatives generally have great respect for the law, and for legal decisions that have been made. This is the essence of what is called stare decisis--let the decision stand. Upholding precedent staunches the forces of change--and typically, that generates conservative results. But when the precedent you are upholding is precedent set by the Warren Court, holding back the forces of change means enforcing liberal decisions against radical demands for change from movement conservatives.

But what I really admire is Souter's love of normal life, of the joys of quotidian living, of non-celebrity, or history, and quiet community.

This is a sane man, only viewed as an eccentric through the prism of our insane culture:

“A lot of people would live up here and hate it,” said Wilbur A. Glahn, a lawyer who has known Justice Souter since 1975 and still hikes with him in the summer. “But David has got a real love for the people and the land and the simple things here. I’m not sure I know a lot of people who are more connected to a place than he is. It’s a very strong, kind of visceral feeling that he has.”

I think it was Larkin who said that travel narrows the mind. It was a mischievously provocative statement, but at its core is something true. The world is a mystery; one place is amazement enough. To live well and deeply in one place, to commit to it, to protect and cherish and understand it: this is a great and difficult and rewarding thing. And David Souter is a good man.

(Photo: David Souter's home in Weare, New Hampshire, by Joe Raedle/Getty.)