Lawyers Journal

Souter biography a detailed portrait of jurist

In his latest biography, Tinsley E. Yarbrough undertakes the somewhat daunting task of telling the life history of Supreme Court Justice David Hackett Souter. He does so quite proficiently, which is interesting because neither Souter nor any of his law clerks agreed to be interviewed for the book. Despite that, Yarbrough does an amazing job of giving us an idea of the man and the jurist.

We get to know Souter through a chronological unfolding of his life to date. It's astonishing that Yarbrough was actually able to obtain as much personal information about the justice as he did. Described as a frugal, true New England Yankee with an intensely independent spirit and strong New Hampshire attachments, Yarbrough at one point compares Souter to George H.W. Bush, insofar as they both come from white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant families that believe in the old values of hard work, integrity and public service.

Although there is a bit too much detail about the justice's childhood for my liking, there are some lighthearted interviews with (mostly female) friends from his past. It is interesting to see the development of Souter's career path and lifelong friendships. There is a consistent thread that begins and is seen throughout the book that shows Souter's intelligence, wit and strength of character.

Universally viewed as extremely intelligent but still down to earth, the justice is described by friends and family as talented, logical and formal, but friendly with a sense of humor. Souter's ethics are described as beyond reproach and he has never been one to yield to public pressure. He is viewed as a tough but compassionate jurist who treats everyone with respect. What emerges is a picture of a man who is a judicial conservative, not a political conservative.

The book is peppered with anecdotes about the justice, particularly from his younger days, and Yarbrough carefully describes the justice's career path, paying particular attention to document that all his advancements were due to merit, not political payback.

Souter's career started with two years in private practice at the law firm of Orr and Reno, then he spent a decade in the New Hampshire attorney general's office. He has served on the New Hampshire State Superior Court, the New Hampshire State Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in Boston, and finally, the Supreme Court of the United States.

President George H.W. Bush's nomination of Souter to the Supreme Court was championed by then-U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and John Sununu, also a New Hampshire native and President Bush's chief of staff. Because Sununu was a leader of the GOP's conservative wing at the time, many observers assumed Souter was similarly conservative. They were wrong, Yarbough points out.

Yarbrough thoroughly researched Souter's judicial record. Starting with his judicial philosophy and frequent references to his role model, the second Justice John Marshall Harlan, Yarbrough details Souter's adherence to stare decisis. Souter describes himself as an interpretationist, unwilling to uproot or substantially modify existing precedents that he calls "our settled law." The justice is committed to interpreting, not making, law.

"What I am searching for is the meaning which in most cases is a principle, intended to be established (by a constitutional provision) as opposed simply to the specific application that the particular provision was meant to have and that was in the minds of those who proposed and framed and adopted it in the first place," Souter is quoted as saying.

Yarbrough details the Supreme Court record through votes and opinions for the past 15 years on topics including abortion rights, civil liberties, free expression, discrimination, religion, criminal procedure, federalism and state sovereignty. On the high bench, Souter is viewed as moderately liberal by Rehnquist standards.

Souter continues to adhere largely to the constitutional approach he embraced during his first terms. He has a moderately liberal, strongly nationalist jurisprudence firmly grounded in a deep commitment to precedent, including those with which he apparently disagrees. In fact, by the end of his third term, Souter was widely regarded as one of the high bench's intellectual leaders.

His lifestyle remains unchanged. He's a workaholic, he jogs regularly, and he looks forward all year to returning to his home and friends in New Hampshire.ÊHe still lives in the same house he grew up in.ÊVisitors have describedÊthe house to Yarbrough as having stacks of books everywhere Ñ except for the dining room.

Souter doesn't like all the security required since Sept. 11, Yarbrough explains, and has been known to slip away from it on occasion.

As Yarbrough sets forth in his preface, "During a time of change on the court, the story of Justice Souter's role and impact seems particularly timely." Who, however, actually knows what any given nominee may do once they are on the bench?

Even after reading the book, you won't know David Souter. You will, however, have a better understanding of this brilliant yet humble man and insight into his judicial philosophies.

©2014 Massachusetts Bar Association