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After Justice Souter, President Obama's Supreme Court Pick

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Saturday, May 2, 2009

FOR YEARS, the rallying cry in conservative legal circles has been "No More Souters," by which activists meant no more "stealth" Supreme Court nominees whose jurisprudence differed from what the president who appointed them had expected. With Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter announcing his intention to retire after 19 years, a good guide for President Obama might be "More Souters" -- but not in the sense that we want stealth nominees. Justice Souter has turned out to be not only smart and thoughtful -- something that could have been predicted from his confirmation testimony -- but also open-minded and free from ideological orthodoxy. That has made him anathema to the right, but a fine justice whose tenure has been marred only by his well-known aversion to our city. Another Souter would not be a bad achievement for Mr. Obama.

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It's odd to realize that the retirement of a justice appointed by President George H.W. Bush and his replacement by a Democratic president will probably not shift the court significantly to the left. Instead, Mr. Obama has an opportunity of a different sort: to add to the diversity of perspectives and experiences on the high court. We do not mean that he should seek to fill in a specific blank -- a second woman, the first Hispanic -- but that he is right to weigh candidates' backgrounds along with their judicial philosophies and intellectual capabilities. Time outside the legal academy and the courtroom is an asset to justices; the best bring to the bench more than a good brain. Constitutional interpretation is not a technocratic operation. Experience in the real world -- of business, of politics, of family life -- adds to the mix. Mr. Obama touched on this yesterday when he outlined the qualities he will seek in a nominee: "someone who understands justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook. It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives."

The temptation for Republicans will be to treat Mr. Obama's pick as some Democrats -- including, sad to say, then-Sen. Obama -- treated President George W. Bush's. It is legitimate for senators to take a nominee's ideology into account and to probe it within ethical limits, but it is also important to keep in mind that elections have consequences, and that the president is, as a general matter, entitled to name justices who reflect his own understanding of the Constitution and the role of the courts. We say this having supported Mr. Bush's two nominees -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. -- as within the mainstream of conservative legal thought. Mr. Obama deserves the same degree of deference in the important choice that he will soon make.


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