Souter Bids a Fond Farewell
By Robert Barnes
PHILADELPHIA -- Justice David H. Souter bade a sentimental goodbye today to the assembled judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, telling them that a jurist's satisfaction comes "not in the great moments, but in being part of the great stream."
Souter told the group he did not mean for his annual address to the circuit, which he oversees on the court, to be a valedictory. "I swear to you I was not the leak," he said about last week's unplanned announcement that he would be stepping down from the court at the end of the current term. "But I admit I'm glad the leak gives me the chance to say some of the things on my mind."
What he had in mind was not a discourse on the court or his possible replacement. Instead, he gave a philosophical view of the importance of the law, and frequently quoted others, such as the late federal judge Richard Arnold, talking about the importance of the judiciary: "There has to be a safe place, and we have to be it."
Souter said the value of judges does not come from the "error-free trial, the perfect decision" or the opinion so good it "should get in the case books by next year." Those things "sink in the stream pretty quickly." Instead, he said, it comes from being part of the continuing process and being "members of a great guild."
"The law replenishes its people as it replenishes its cases," he said.
The 15-minute speech showed Souter's aversion to the spotlight. He barred television cameras and photographers from the event, and required reporters to leave their tape recorders outside the ballroom of the hotel. Souter has not planned a news conference for when he leaves the court, and did not answer questions.
But The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder reported that Souter attended an Oxford University alumni luncheon at the Willard Hotel on a Saturday, along with Justice Stephen Breyer. Ambinder said Souter told him he "probably" would have retired had John McCain been elected.
"I'm going to be seventy soon. I've watched other justices wait until their eighties to retire, and by that time they have nothing left to retire to. I didn't want that to be me."
He told a questioner at the Saturday event that there's no good hiking south of Massachusetts and described a dream he's had every day since deciding to retire: He is standing atop New Hampshire's highest peak, above the treeline, looking down a path that winds away into the distance.
Souter seemed sentimental at today's event as well, telling the group that he called the justice he replaced, William Brennan, before giving his first speech to the 3rd Circuit 19 years ago. He asked if Brennan had a message for the group.
"'Just give them my love, David,'" Souter recalled, and began to choke up. "It's going on 20 years since Justice Brennan said, 'Just give them my love,' but that goes for me, too."
Posted at 3:43 PM ET on May 5, 2009
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