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.