In a speech at Georgetown University Law Center Wednesday, retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter made a powerful plea for re-educating the American public about the fundamentals of how government works.
The republic, Souter said, "can be lost, it is being lost, it is lost, if it is not understood." He cited surveys showing large majorities of the public cannot name the three branches of government, something he said would have been unheard of when he was growing up in rural Weare, N.H. What is needed, Souter said, is nothing less than "the restoration of the self-identity of the American people."
Souter, 69, said he is already doing his part, having agreed last week to join a committee that is revamping the civic curriculum for New Hampshire's public schools. "If I can do it, you can do it too," Souter told his audience. After he retires at the end of the Court's current term, Souter plans to return to Weare.
The justice spoke at a conference at Georgetown, the latest in a series focusing on the independence of the judiciary, convened by retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Souter's planned retirement, announced May 1, overshadowed the day's discussion as participants debated the importance of diversity and empathy in the context of the judiciary.
Several potential Supreme Court nominees were on hand, including Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Judge Diane Wood of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Judge Vanessa Ruiz of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
But Souter's was the most dramatic talk, winning a prolonged standing ovation from several hundred lawyers and judges from around the country. O'Connor was visibly moved by Souter's remarks.
In keeping with his aversion to the limelight, Souter prohibited still and broadcast cameras from recording his talk. It had a valedictory tone, with Souter reminiscing about town hall meetings he attended as a child in New Hampshire. Town meetings, in which all residents can attend and can have a say in local governance, are "the most radical example, I suppose, of democracy in America." They are held in March "before the mud gets bad," Souter said. At those meetings, Souter said he learned about the separate duties of different branches and levels of government.
According to Souter, the Georgetown conferences preceding Wednesday's event focused initially on developing ways to "stick up for the judiciary" in the face of political attacks. But he said participants eventually realized that "the real problem was the debasement and in some cases the disappearance of basic knowledge" about government. He and others realized that the real task ahead was "to start the re-education of a substantial part of the public."
Souter closed by recalling the late Judge Richard Arnold's statement about why judicial independence is so important to the nation. He said that at a Philadelphia conference several years ago Arnold, an acclaimed judge on the 8th Circuit who died in 2004, said a strong and independent judiciary was needed because, "There has to be a safe place. There has to be a safe place. That's all he said."
This article first appeared on The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times.