The last Bostonian?

By Alex Beam
Globe Staff / May 8, 2009
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"Who needed Paris if you had Boston, [Souter] would remark to friends." - The New York Times, May 3

That quotation still shocks, even though Supreme Court Justice David Souter has said it before. In 1997, former Supreme Court clerk Edward Lazarus described Souter as "a Harvard graduate and enthusiast," and added that Souter "regards Boston as the center of the civilized world."

I couldn't believe it, so I sent Souter a letter, politely questioning the notion that my adopted hometown really was the Athens of America. Back came a neatly typed note from the justice. He hadn't seen Lazarus's remarks, he wrote, adding: "He did his homework, though, at least so far as my feeling about Boston is concerned. But Boston is in no need of bolstering from me."

Rectitude, reason, reverence for the law, and Republicanism - Souter was appointed by George H.W. Bush - those used to be common traits here. Hatch, Sargent, Richardson, Lodge, Sears - there was a time when a Republican could get elected in this town. Who's in the GOP now? Mitt Romney, who is ashamed of the only piece of meaningful legislation that he worked on, the Massachusetts health care law? Howie Carr? Michael Graham? Jay Severin? Conveniently, everyone claims to be a "libertarian," against everything, for nothing.

Few remember that it was Boston-born Warren Rudman, the New Hampshire senator, who all but willed the little-known Souter onto the Supreme Court. After leaving the Senate, Rudman and former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas cofounded the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan organization dedicated to balancing the federal budget. As Congress and the White House ring up trillion-dollar deficits, the idea of a balanced budget sounds as quaint as a burlesque act in Scollay Square.

Souter - polite, studied, frugal - is every inch the Proper Bostonian. Neither particularly rich nor particularly poor, he is as tight with a dollar as a Beacon Hill Brahmin. In his Supreme Court office, he edges his chair closer to a window to read, rather than switch on wasteful electricity. He disdains puffing up; Souter declined to cooperate with his only biographer, to date.

And there is the becoming modesty. Once, when a stranger at a Massachusetts restaurant mistook him for Justice Stephen Breyer, Souter played along, to spare the man's feelings. In his book "The Nine," Jeffrey Toobin reports the end of their conversation, with Souter still acting the part of Breyer:

"Justice Breyer, what's the best thing about being on the Supreme Court?"

The justice thought for a while, then said, "Well, I'd have to say it's the privilege of serving with David Souter."

Did someone say . . . fuddy-duddy? Souter has said that cameras will be allowed in the Court "over my dead body." He does all his writing on paper, with a fountain pen. It was Souter's fountain pen that wrote one of the Court's most complex technological decisions, a finding that Grokster was responsible for the illegal use of its copying software.

Then there are his beliefs. In a rare public pronouncement at the funeral of Stanford Law professor Gerald Gunther, Souter spoke of "every judge's common obligations: suspicion of easy cases, skepticism about clear-edged categories, modesty in the face of precedent, candor in playing one worthy principle against another, and the nerve to do it in concrete circumstances on an open page."

The greatest compliment one could pay him is that, at one time or another, he has displeased almost everyone. Vote-first-think-later senators like Ted Kennedy and John Kerry opposed his confirmation, comparing him to Robert Bork. Notional liberals bridled at his support for the exclusion of a lesbian and bisexual group at Boston's traditional St. Patrick's Day bacchanalia. Notional conservatives berated him for his moderate vote, with Sandra Day O'Connor, on a key abortion case, and picketed his New Hampshire home when Souter upheld government's right to take land by eminent domain.

Souter even alienated me, his greatest fan, in the landmark Bush v. Gore decision. I couldn't care less how he voted - I don't doubt for a minute that he voted the law, and his conscience - but his reported surprise at the partisan, party-line split decision seemed a little naive to me.

What was he expecting? A court full of David Souters? In his dreams, perhaps, but not in the real world.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is