Wooley v. Maynard was not a landmark Supreme Court decision, but it is a point of light, for it shows how the court can protect the conscience of an individual against the mechanical, arbitrariness of the state and its minions.

On the passenger car plates of New Hampshire was the commanding state motto, "Live Free or Die." Yet there was a Jehovah's Witness who resisted allowing the state to use his property as a hortatory billboard.

The bellicose language, he said, was repugnant to his religious beliefs. And so the Jehovah's Witness took some tape and covered up the state's message on his license plates.

The state of New Hampshire brought criminal charges against this stiff-necked dissident. He was to be made an example of so that there would be no more questioning of state authority in these matters. His chief pursuer was the attorney general, David Souter.

The attorney general and the state of New Hampshire were rebuked by the Supreme Court in a 1977 decision written by Warren Burger.

Said the court: "{The} right of freedom of thought protected by the First Amendment {includes} both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all."

New Hampshire's attorney general, the Supreme Court went on, was actually claiming constitutional justification for "a state measure which forces an individual, as part of his daily life, {to} be an instrument for fostering public adherence to an ideological point of view he finds unacceptable." An individual has a First Amendment right to "avoid being the courier for such a message."

Souter later said he had expected to lose the case on constitutional grounds -- proving to his supporters that he was simply defending a state policy. It was not necessarily his view, they say. Yet no attorney general is required to support a policy he is convinced is unconstitutional -- unless he wants to get along by going along with the governor of his state.

When Souter went on the state court, he continued to be a paladin of the state, particularly in criminal cases, where he seemed to regard theFourth Amendment as plainly misbegotten.

As for the individuals who came before him, or whose trial records he read on the appellate level, Souter was the kind of judge described by Benjamin Cardozo as standing "aloof ... on chill and distant heights."

In 1977, during a deposition, Souter said, as attorney general, "I generally do not read newspapers." And a colleague added: "he neither reads newspapers nor watches television nor listens to the radio."

Souter's life is focused on the law, neatly bound and indexed.

After filing for divorce, a woman had an affair, and Judge Souter ruled that even though she no longer cohabited with her husband, the law considered her guilty of adultery. The precedent was there in the books, right there. Fortunately this was not Massachusetts, and she was not accused of witchcraft.

Lars-Erik Nelson of the New York Daily News has written of the case before Judge Souter involving two brothers, 79 and 76. Until they were laid off, they had shared a janitor's job at a youth center for 22 years. When they applied for unemployment benefits, their claim was rejected. The law said that to qualify, an applicant must be willing to work eight hours a day. Because of their age and health, the brothers could each only work four hours a day. Judge Souter, sitting on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, agreed with the state's Department of Employment Security. As reported by Nelson, Souter did not deny that "{the brothers} suffered from heart, back and eye ailments -- but he questioned whether they suffered so much that they could not work a full day."

Souter added: "It is neither common knowledge, nor do the plaintiffs claim, that a weak back, poor eyesight or angina necessarily prevent an individual who can work four hours a day from working eight." As for their age, "age is not legally a handicap."

In "Bleak House," Charles Dickens brings us into the Court of Chancery where, on his "padded dais," the "Lord High Chancellor looks into the lantern that has no light in it." There is a small light in Judge Souter's lantern, but will it be enough to bring warmth to the Constitution and the nation?

Benjamin Cardozo said that "the great tides and currents which engulf the rest of men do not turn aside in their course and pass the judges by."

Cardozo may not have been able to imagine Judge Souter.