Opinion

Commentary: Souter has been a careful adherent to legal precedent

This editorial appeared in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Does Justice David Souter's retirement mean cameras in the Supreme Court at long last?

Souter's almost as well-known for "conservativism" on televised arguments as he is for "liberalism" on Roe v. Wade.

He once said cameras would bring live case arguments to the public over his dead body, and during almost 19 years on the nation's highest court he doesn't seem to have budged from that traditionalist view.

Where he did move was away from the early image of a reliable vote for conservative causes. But that was an expectation that others created.

President George H.W. Bush, at the urging of Chief of Staff John Sununu, nominated Souter to replace legendary liberal Justice William Brennan, who retired in the summer of 1990.

A good friend of Sununu, Souter was a former New Hampshire attorney general and state court judge who'd been on a federal appeals court only a few months. He was unmarried and lived alone in a family farmhouse. Editorial cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, then with the Chicago Tribune, depicted a Senate Judiciary Committee of clowns and cranks questioning Souter about being an oddball.

It didn't take Souter long to mark the court indelibly. In 1992, he helped fellow Republican appointees Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy craft an opinion that affirmed a constitutional right to choose abortion. That ruling in the Pennsylvania case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved away from the trimester framework in Roe and allowed state abortion regulations that don't put an "undue burden" on women's right to choose. But anti-abortion Republicans never forgave him for it.

Souter has been pegged as a member of the court's "liberal" wing. Truth is, he's been a thoughtful questioner during arguments, a careful adherent to legal precedent and a justice who tried to consider the real-world implications of the court's decisions.

To read the complete editorial, visit The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

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