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Amid Some Tears, Souter Bids Adieu to 3rd CircuitThroughout his high court tenure, Souter has served as the 'circuit justice' for the 3rd Circuit, handling emergency motions from the appeals court
In a farewell speech that brought tears to a few eyes, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter invoked a 19th century English poet and legendary federal appeals Judge Learned Hand as he implored the judges and lawyers of the 3rd Circuit to derive a sense of lasting fulfillment from the work they do every day. "We are members of a great guild ... that stretches back to the Middle Ages," Souter told his audience.
The Legal Intelligencer2009-05-06 12:00:00 AM
In a farewell speech that brought tears to a few eyes, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter invoked a 19th century English poet and legendary federal appeals Judge Learned Hand as he implored the judges and lawyers of the 3rd Circuit to derive a sense of lasting fulfillment from the work they do every day. For his entire tenure on the Supreme Court, Souter has served as the "circuit justice" for the 3rd Circuit, meaning that he handles emergency motions that come from the 3rd Circuit and that he has regularly spoken at 3rd Circuit judicial conferences.
Souter has been such a frequent visitor that 3rd Circuit Chief Judge Anthony J. Scirica described him in introduction as "a beloved member of the 3rd Circuit family."
This year's visit from Souter was "especially poignant," Scirica said, as a result of the news last week that Souter will be retiring at the end of the high court's term in June.
"I swear to you I was not the leak," Souter said, referring to news accounts last week that said Souter's decision not to return had been revealed by his failure to hire law clerks for the next term.
Souter recalled his first 3rd Circuit conference in 1991 when then-Chief Judge Dolores K. Sloviter greeted him warmly -- a feeling, he said, that has never waned. But Souter joked that there seemed at first to be "a degree of suspicion" about him because Sloviter gave him a packet of materials that included a copy of the U.S. Constitution. He said he was thankful that Scirica had not done the same this year, but joked: "He may have assumed it's too late now."
Growing wistful in his tone, Souter said he had found it "impossible not to do a mental reckoning" as he reflected on his final visit to the 3rd Circuit as its circuit justice.
The room was hushed as, in a contemplative voice, Souter said he had turned to the poetry of Algernon Charles Swinburne and was struck by the line: "Such fruit as men reap from spent hours and wear."
Souter said he asked himself, "What are the fruits that I have reaped?"
The answer, Souter said, could be found in a lecture from 2nd Circuit Judge Learned Hand, who said: "It is as craftsmen that we get our satisfaction and our pay." It is lawyers, Souter said, who give us the laws we order our lives by, who defend us when we are accused, prosecute those who harm us and decide our disputes. Without lawyers and the lawyers who go on to be become judges, he said, society would be prone to "private acts of vengeance."
Quoting the late 8th Circuit Judge Richard S. Arnold, Souter said: "There has to be a safe place and we have to be it."
Souter said he found Hand's metaphor of the craftsman to be "on the money" because it helped describe the value of what judges and lawyers do in the everyday lives of their fellow men.
Only the rare case, he said, leads to an opinion that will be quoted for decades to come.
"How many people in this room have ever cited to a case older than 50 years, or 40 years?" Souter asked.
Most of a judge's or lawyer's work, he said, "sinks into the stream pretty quickly."
But Souter urged his colleagues to find fulfillment in "being part of the great stream."
"We are members of a great guild ... that stretches back to the Middle Ages," Souter said, a fellowship that until recently included such legendary judges as Collins J. Seitz, A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. and Edward R. Becker.
"We have a right to be here with each other, and I have a right to be here with you," Souter said.
Souter recalled that just before he made his journey to Teaneck, N.J., in 1991 to attend his first 3rd Circuit conference, he had spoken with Justice William J. Brennan Jr., whose seat on the Supreme Court Souter had been named to fill and whose duties as 3rd Circuit justice had come with the post.
"I asked him if he had any messages [for you], and he said, 'Just give them my love, David,'" Souter said.
"It's going on 20 years since Justice Brennan said, 'Just give them my love,' but that goes for me, too," Souter said.
Note: For more on Justice Souter, see Marcia Coyle's National Law Journal article A Not-So-Quiet Legacy for the 'Stealth Justice'