You could call it the end of an error. David Souter, the “stealth justice” who George H. W. Bush nominated mainly to avoid a confirmation battle and who so disappointed conservatives, is finally free to leave a city he never took to and return to his native New Hampshire.
Little more can be said about Justice Souter. He has always been inscrutable, at first leaning right, shifting toward the middle in the landmark 1992 cases of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion) and Lee v. Weisman (prayer at high school graduation), and ending up at the left end of the Court alongside Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer – all the while employing an unpredictable jurisprudential method. And he has always been reclusive, refusing reporters’ and scholars’ interview requests and being the biggest opponent of video cameras inside the Court. Perhaps most memorably, Souter gained notoriety after his vote in Kelo v. New London (allowing the taking of a private home for the benefit of a developer) spurred property rights activists to petition for the use of eminent domain to turn his farm into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.”
Speculation now turns to possible replacements, and what President Obama will do with his first chance to fill a seat on the high court. Will he risk a big political battle on this issue so early in his term, or will he appoint someone more confirmable but less pleasing to his base?
He is under great pressure to appoint a woman, and the three leading female candidates are new Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood. Kagan would be an almost-certain pick a year from now, but having been just confirmed to be the so-called Tenth Justice, she might be seen as too green for elevation. Sotomayor — because she is Hispanic and despite a mixed judicial record — was the odds-on favorite until the Court took up the employment discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano (argued just last week), an appeal of a bizarre opinion Sotomayor joined that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race. That leaves Wood, a renowned authority on antitrust, international trade, and federal civil procedure, whose age (58) suggests that this is likely the last vacancy for which she will be considered. Wood offers a seriousness of purpose and no ideological ax to grind, and is thus the best nominee supporters of constitutionalism and the rule of law can hope for at this time. (Full disclosure: I took two classes from Judge Wood in law school.)