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Farewell and Adieu, Justice Souter

By Kevin Fayle on June 29, 2009 | Last updated on March 21, 2019
Today was Justice David Souter's last day on the Supreme Court, and it probably wasn't exactly the kind of day he wanted to end on.  The Court ended up ruling in favor of a group of white firemen who claimed that a city's promotion policy constituted reverse discrimination.

Souter dissented from the majority opinion, joining the group of three other justices that have made up the Court's liberal bloc for the past fifteen years: Justices Ginsburg, Stevens and Breyer. 

While the outcome of the case wasn't what Souter had wanted, he had to have been touched by his colleagues' parting statements praising his "wisdom, civility and dedication."  While the justices were sad to see Souter go, the letter, which Chief Justice Roberts read in Court, also said that "[w]e understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains," referencing Souter's oft-stated desire to return permanently to his beloved New Hampshire.
It was no secret that Souter did not enjoy the Washington scene.  He left for New Hampshire immediately after each term, and tried to remain out of the social circuit that pulls in so many other Washington luminaries.  He rented a modest apartment and avoided the limelight.

But Souter did enjoy being on the Supreme Court.  He once famously said that being a Supreme Court justice was the best job in the worst city.

Souter was often the enigma on the Court.  Tending towards an ascetic lifestyle, Souter carefully considered his government pension, even though some prudent investments had made him one of the wealthiest members of the Court.  Every day, he ate an apple and a cup of yogurt for lunch, even eating the meal off of the Court's fine china when the justices would dine together. 

He never married, despite the attempts of Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg to set him up with eligible Washington ladies.  And despite his wealth and standing, he rented a spartan apartment in Washington near a military installation.

But he was widely regarded for his intellectual honesty and his stable judicial temperament.  He also had a good sense of humor, and was not afraid to poke fun at himself.

There's a story, recounted in Jeffrey Toobin's wonderful book on the Supreme Court, The Nine, about a couple who came up to speak to Justice Souter in a restaurant.  The couple knew he was on the Supreme Court, but mistook him for Justice Breyer.  Souter didn't correct them, and instead chatted amiably with the couple for a few minutes, at which point the man asked him: "What's the best part about being on the Supreme Court." 

To which Souter replied, after a few seconds' thought: "Well, I would have to say it's been the honor of working with David Souter."

See Also:
Letters on Justice Souter's retirement (SCOTUSblog)

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