ANY WEARE, USA, Oct. 9, 1991 -- One year has passed since David Hackett Souter joined the Supreme Court, and it is becoming clear that his selection has had a profound impact on the nation.
The substance of Justice Souter's jurisprudence remains uncertain, as he has not authored any majority or dissenting opinions since joining the high court. He has, however, pioneered a legal innovation: the dual opinion in a single case, in which he concurs with both the court majority and the dissenters. As he is wont to say, "Both sides raised points worth considering." The practical effect has been to force the other justices to compromise their positions, because whenever there has been a 4-4 split, Justice Souter, as the swing vote, has voted for both sides.
The tenor of moderation has even muted partisan politics in Congress. The budget agreement for this fiscal year was reached with remarkable ease as Democrats urged domestic spending cuts and Republicans backed tax increases. Even John Sununu has been wearing a "Don't Worry, Be Reasonable" button on his lapel.
By the end of his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last year, nominee Souter's careful logic and warm demeanor had entranced many of his liberal critics on the panel, and his legacy can still be felt in the committee chambers. Most striking has been the new spirit of accommodation among the committee members. Strom Thurmond and Alan Simpson have begun supporting feminist causes, and Molly Yard refers to them as "my cute boys." Paul Simon took time off from his excursions to Indian reservations to visit rural New Hampshire, where he exclaimed, "Justice Souter is right. There is no racial discrimination here. There aren't even any people here." Joe Biden has taken to incorporating "Souterisms" (such as, "I want to be judged as a listener") into his speeches, which are now fully attributed.
Of the senators on the Judiciary Committee, only Ted Kennedy opposed the nomination because, as he would later say, "I can't bear the thought of someone who sounds so much like me being appointed by George Bush." But even the senior senator from Massachusetts has been heard to say lately that "maybe there is something to this judicial restraint after all."
The greatest impact of the Souter era has been on the cultural habits of America. Souter clubs have been appearing on college campuses. The phenomenon started at Berkeley, where a sort of radical moderation has taken the political momentum away from the ideologues of left and right. The movement has even made inroads in the fraternities and among the engineering students and physical scientists, whose indifference to politics, in pursuit of beer and career, respectively, had led critics to bemoan the decline of political awareness on campus. Now apathy has been replaced by moderation, and listening has become the most popular pastime at Berkeley, where calm debate has become an art form and students compete for the title of "best moderator."
Coffee houses have sprung up, where pale young men and women in rumpled gray suits gather to listen to both sides of every issue in excruciating detail, split hairs on fine points of logic and join in singing the new anthem of youth, "It All Depends."
Justice Souter has been a godsend for physicians worried about the spread of skin cancer in the pursuit of the perfect tan. Local libraries have supplanted beaches as the trendy places for demonstrating prowess and pursuing romantic liaisons. Library associations have had great success with advertising campaigns showing Justice Souter holding a book next to the slogan, "Just Do It." Ironically, Nike had to drop its previously popular ad campaign using the same slogan as impetuous indulgence fell out of favor. The new Nike ads show a middle-aged man sitting on a weather-beaten porch, as the voice-over intones, "Just think about it." The personal habits of Justice Souter, which received such close scrutiny in the months leading up to his confirmation, have generated new fads in home design and personal leisure. The weathered, unpainted look is all the rage, and abandoned farmsteads in small New England towns have been in great demand. Indeed, new subdivisions known as "Soutervilles" have sprung up across the country; the roads are all dirt and the homeowner associations forbid the painting of houses or the regular mowing of grass.
Of course, this cultural sea change has left some segments of the economy reeling. Sales of riding lawnmowers and grass fertilizers have plummeted. Paint manufacturers have taken a beating and are working feverishly to bring out new products such as Rot in a Pot, purported to give new wood the look of decay and neglect. Travel to foreign nations, indeed, travel of any sort, has fallen sharply as families seek the subtle satisfactions of staying in the same place for seemingly endless periods. Paris in particular has noticed a drop in American tourists ("Nothing here can compare with Weare" has become a popular refrain).
The political pundits were correct when they said Justice William Brennan's successor could remake the American landscape -- although the changes may not be quite what they envisioned.
Dennis Coyle is an assistant professor of politics at the Catholic University of America.