David Souter: 'A Classic Yankee Republican'

GOP appointee became an independent thinker on and off the Supreme Court.

ByABC News
May 1, 2009, 4:25 PM

May 2, 2009— -- Supreme Court Justice David Souter may be little known outside his small circle of friends -- he shies away from the Washington social scene and prefers to be in his New Hampshire cabin reading books -- but those who know him or work with him say Souter is a funny man who takes serious interest in the law and his work.

The 69-year-old associate justice never hid his dislike for Washington, but Souter is hardly a recluse.

"When you meet the guy you expect to meet some silent Cal Coolidge type of New Englander who talks very little and whatever else goes with that stereotype," said Meir Feder, one of Souter's clerks from the 1990 term and a partner at New York-based Jones Day. "Although he's someone who doesn't like to spend a lot of time out in high society, he is a really warm and engaging person, and in fact quite a talented story teller and sort of off-the-cuff speaker."

His clerks remember him as one who took their ideas seriously and did not impose his higher stature on those below him.

"I was not expecting him to be quite as warm and charming as he turned out to be," said Kermit Roosevelt, who clerked for Souter in 1999 and 2000, and is now a professor at University of Pennsylvania's law school. "His persona was very laid back, unpretentious. You could see this in the discussions he had with the clerks about the cases. He was interested in hearing what we had to say and didn't give us any sense of hierarchy."

Souter's tenure on the court was marked by a willingness to vote outside political party lines, marking him as an independent thinker.

President Obama also reflected on that on Friday, announcing Souter's retirement and calling the justice a "fair minded and independent" judge who combined a "feverish work ethic" with good sense of humor and integrity.

"It's never been a secret he doesn't like Washington. ... There was a lot of artificiality in relationships. People relate to the position rather than the person and that's completely the opposite of he was," Roosevelt said.

Souter has been unabashedly vocal about his dislike of Washington and his desire to return home to New Hampshire.

"Of course, we have all known that his deep love for New Hampshire would take him away from the court some day," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement Friday.

Although he rarely gives speeches in Washington, Souter raised eyebrows this spring when he made a joke about the fatigue from his work load.

"I find the workload of what I do sufficiently great that when the term of court starts I undergo a sort of annual intellectual lobotomy," he said.

The never-married Souter is an avid reader. He has told his friends for years he wants to sit by the fire in his New Hampshire draft cabin and read his books.

"He was a classic frugal Yankee Republican. He's been known to reheat yesterday's coffee in the microwave," recalled Rebecca Tushnet, who was one of Souter's clerks in 1999 and 2000 and is now a law professor at Georgetown University.

Souter was born in Massachusetts, but spent most of his life in the rural town of Weare, N.H. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, he climbed up the ranks of the legal world from assistant attorney general of New Hampshire to an associate judge in the state's Supreme Court.

When Souter was plucked out of New Hampshire by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, he was little known outside of the state.

"He really was someone who saw himself as someone working in Washington but not being of Washington, and he has a very strong sense of what he likes to spend his time doing, and hobnobbing isn't high on the list. Hiking and jogging and reading are things that are pretty high on the list," Feder said.

Souter is also a history buff, specifically the history of the Constitution, as evident in his attempt to maintain a continuity of Supreme Court opinions.

"I think he was very interested in... what history could teach us about the rule of law," Roosevelt said.