Souter's Life in the Law Detached Intellect Over Ideology
Thursday, September 13, 1990
As a young lawyer in the New Hampshire attorney general's office in 1970, David H. Souter experienced what he later described as "one of the most gratifying events of my life" -- appearing in federal court to defend New Hampshire's literacy test for voters.
The state lost. But the merits of its position -- that the Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional in abolishing its literacy test -- were not what excited Souter. For him, the case represented the opportunity for what he calls a "genuinely dialectical exchange" with an esteemed federal judge.
That reminiscence, on a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire listing his most important cases, was classic Souter, friends say. Throughout his career, the little-known New Hampshire judge has been less a legal zealot bent on a mission than a man with a detached, almost coldblooded attitude toward the law, one seemingly more interested in the intellectual contours of a legal argument than its real-world consequences.
Such an approach has served Souter well, allowing him to navigate the distance between the extremes in New Hampshire's Republican Party.
As appointed attorney general under conservative Gov. Meldrim Thomson Jr., Souter defended some of the governor's more controversial crusades, such as ordering state flags lowered to half-staff on Good Friday to commemorate the death of Jesus, or prosecuting Jehovah's Witnesses for obscuring the state motto, "Live Free or Die," on their license plates. One of his main backers in the Bush administration, vouching for his trustworthiness among conservatives, has been former New Hampshire governor John H. Sununu, who appointed Souter to the state Supreme Court.
Yet Souter's deepest friendships lie with more moderate, pragmatic Republicans, particularly two men who served with him in the attorney general's office, Sen. Warren B. Rudman and Concord lawyer Thomas D. Rath.