Missing Souter

I remember when the first President Bush nominated David Souter to the Supreme Court. I listened to the televised session when he appeared before Congress (I think it was CSPAN–it was certainly past my bedtime), fearful after the disappointment that was Clarence Thomas, and I was impressed by the erudition of his responses. I wasn’t disappointed by his subsequent jurisprudence; agree or not (and usually I did agree), his opinions were always reasoned, nuanced and respectful of both the litigants and the Constitutional process.

I was sorry to see him step down from the Court. During the recent coverage of oral arguments, I was struck by the mediocrity of Alito and irritated by Scalia’s usual grandstanding, and really regretted Souter’s absence.

Yesterday, I had a chance to see him in person. I was attending a small conference on civic education at Harvard, co-sponsored by the Law School and former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics, and Souter was one of the panelists–along with Lawrence Tribe, Justice O’Connor, and Kenneth Starr. (Talk about your heavy hitters!)

Justice O’Connor said very little, but Souter was eloquent. In a day devoted to necessary technical issues–how do we improve civic education, what are the barriers we face, what is the necessary content of an education that will encourage informed, active citizenship–he cut to the chase: America has a tension between the rights of the individual and the common good. That’s a healthy tension. But we must guard against times when we go too far in either direction. When, as now, we place excessive importance on individualism, and neglect the common good, we run the danger of forgetting what it means to be an American, a part of a polity. We forget who “we” are when we focus too narrowly on the “me.”

And “we” are constituted by our commitment to our Constitution. When our citizens are ignorant of American history, American values and our constitutional commitments, we lose our identity.

His actual remarks were far, far more eloquent than my rendition of them. Listening to him, I could only think how much the current Court lost when he stepped down.


  1. I always treasure reading your posts, Sheila; this one especially. I recall hearing, many years ago, that our founders strongly disagreed as to whether or not we were owed a public education, and that they were finally able to find common ground when they agreed on the importance of civics–learning how we as a people govern ourselves.
    Living overseas has only made me more appreciative of the foundation laid by our constitution and our system of governance, and even more resolute that civics should be taught more often in our schools.
    I wish I could’ve heard the conference you attended–thank you for sharing!
    Best always,

  2. Yes, but Souder’s constitutional theories seem far too complicated for the average citizen-reader. As spring approaches, I much prefer to rely on a new best seller entitled “The Annotated Remarks of Justice Clarence Thomas During Oral Arguments Since His Appointment and Confirmation in 1991”. The title is almost as long as the contents, saving any number of trees. Let’s keep this civic literacy stuff simple, Shiela, as God intended. (:

  3. I was glad to hear on the radio this morning that there will be a series devoted to the Constitution on PBS starting soon. The “Wait, wait, don’t tell me” guy is producing it.

  4. Indiana legislators will be safe from the bottom a while longer. I have mentioned the notorious East TN GOP individual (“lawmaker”), Stacey Campfield, before. His latest outrageous statement ought to have his desk cleaned out by 8:00 AM Thursday!

    His proposal is to tie a child’s family’s welfare benefits to the child’s grades (report cards). If the child does poorly in school, his family’s welfare benefits would be reduced/cut off? Can you even imagine?

    This is the same Stacey Campfield who thinks that a woman’s body can discern between rape and not rape, shutting down the mechanism that would cause her to get pregnant when raped. The crazy train stops daily in Knox Co., TN, in front of this guy’s house. Stay after those Indiana legislators–you don’t want them trying to outdo this wrong-headed thinking.

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