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Justice Souter: Liberal or conservative?

In 1990, the jurist was nominated by a Republican president. In 1992, a ruling to preserve Roe vs. Wade changed everything.

May 04, 2009|David G. Savage

"He likes old things: furniture, the old Episcopal prayer book, old friends like me," said John McCausland, the vicar of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Souter's hometown of Weare, N.H. The two have been friends for 50 years.

When Souter announced his retirement Friday, the reactions were the mirror opposite of those seen at the time of his nomination. Women's rights groups and liberal activists who had fought his confirmation in 1990 praised him as a principled judge.

"Countless women across this country owe him a debt of gratitude," said Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center.

Republicans who had rallied behind him then politely thanked him for his service and wished him well in retirement. Others were more scathing. "Souter has been a terrible justice," said Edward Whelan, writing for the conservative National Review.

On the other side, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) saw the virtues of a fellow New Englander. "Justice Souter fits the independent Yankee mold. Throughout his career, he has been committed to the law and not to ideology," he said.

When word leaked out last week that Souter intended to retire, he refused to comment. Instead, he met with his colleagues in their regular Friday morning conference and then sent President Obama a two-sentence letter.

"When the Supreme Court rises for the summer recess this year, I intend to retire from active service as a justice," he wrote, citing the provision in law that permits him to retire with a pension.

After speaking with Souter by phone, Obama said: "Justice Souter has shown what it means to be a fair-minded and independent judge. He came to the bench with no particular ideology. He never sought to promote a political agenda.

"He approached judging as he approaches life," the president said, "with a feverish work ethic and a good sense of humor, with integrity, equanimity and compassion -- the hallmark of not just being a good judge, but of being a good person."

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david.savage@latimes.com

James Oliphant in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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