Robert Bork once said serving on the Supreme Court would be “an intellectual feast.” Last night, by contrast, Justice David Souter said he undergoes a “sort of annual intellectual lobotomy” when the Supreme Court term begins in October, a condition that he said lasts until the end of the term the following summer.
It was an offhand remark by Souter, made in service of a larger point before an audience of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in D.C.: that Americans need to develop a “habit of mind” that includes reading books – which, he implied, becomes very hard for him to do during the bustle of a Supreme Court term. “I cram what I can into the summertime,” Souter said.
Without making too much of it, Souter’s comment opened an interesting window into his thinking about his job – and why conventional wisdom has it that he is considering leaving the Court soon to repair to his New Hampshire home. If he thinks of his work on the Court, even sarcastically, as a nine-month-long, brain-evacuating experience, it is easier to see why he would want to leave it behind – if nothing else, to catch up on his reading.
It was a rare public outing for the reclusive justice, but he was at ease, and among friends; he has been a fellow of the academy since 1997.(View the discussion at this C-SPAN site.) Souter spoke on a panel discussing the role of humanities in civic life, with a special focus on how to make the case for humanities education and for the importance of humanities in general in the current economic and political climate. Souter was joined by Patty Stonesifer, chair of the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents, Don Randel, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and Edward Ayers, president of the University of Richmond, with Leslie Berlowitz, CEO of the American Academy moderating.
Souter made a strong pitch for the necessity of learning history, in part as “an antidote to cynicism about the past.” As an example, he discussed how differently the justices who decided Plessy v. Ferguson (in favor of racially separate facilities) viewed segregation from those who decided Brown v. Board of Education against separate but equal schools. Only by learning the historical context of both decisions, Souter said, can the Plessy decision be understood.
During a question-and-answer period, Souter was expansive with advice, though he cautioned against following it. As he was about to suggest ways to advocate for humanities before Congress, Souter noted that he has long been on the “judicial salary committee” urging raises for judges, without any success. “Whatever I tell you, do the opposite.”
Souter said that during a conference on judicial independence at Georgetown University Law Center led by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer two years ago, he learned that the problem was not just that the public is ignorant about how the judiciary works. “The problem is one of pervasive ignorance about government.” Taking a civics class when he was a child, Souter said, was “dull as ditch water,” but absolutely necessary – and only 50 percent of students today take civics. Souter’s point appeared to be that “holding the humanities tin cup” was not a narrow plea but a campaign to improve all branches of education.
That led Souter to his discussion of the need for a “habit of mind” that includes reading, intellectual curiosity, and self-doubt. He ended by noting that the legendary jurist Learned Hand, quoting Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century British leader, once said these words should appear above the entrance of all schools, courthouses, and public buildings: “Consider That Ye May Be Wrong.” (Photo above by Diego Radzinschi.)