The Harvard Gazette has posted the entire speech that Retiring Justice David Souter of the SCOTUS gave at this year’s Harvard commencement.
It’s an interesting read for a number of reasons. As ludicrous as this may sound, his introduction line hooked me:
“When I was younger, I used to hear Harvard stories from a member of the class of 1885.”
Think about that. 1885. That alone is pretty crazy and gives you a sense of the history behind Justice Souter. Perhaps it betrays my youth that this impresses me, but it does. As an individual who saw the birth of the internet in their lifetime, thinking back to someone who lived in the 1880s quite honestly boggles my mind.
His speech is a great read, as it explains Souter’s judicial philosophy and explains some of the lessons he learns. More importantly, it gives the reader (or listener, if you heard him) a glimpse into his perspective on the US constitution.
Justin Ide/Harvard Staff Photographer
Justice David H. Souter signs the guest book inside Massachusetts Hall prior to the Morning Exercises at Harvard's 359th Commencement.
When I was younger, I used to hear Harvard stories from a member of the class of 1885. Back then, old graduates of the College who could get to Cambridge on Commencement Day didn’t wait for reunion years to come back to the Yard. They’d just turn up, see old friends, look over the new crop, and have a cup of Commencement punch under the elms. The old man remembered one of those summer days when he was heading for the Square after lunch and crossed paths with a newly graduated senior, who had enjoyed quite a few cups of that punch. As the two men approached each other the younger one thrust out his new diploma and shouted, “Educated, by God.”
Even with an honorary Harvard doctorate in my hands, I know enough not to shout that across the Yard, but the University’s generosity does make me bold enough to say that over the course of 19 years on the Supreme Court, I learned some lessons about the Constitution of the United States, and about what judges do when they apply it in deciding cases with constitutional issues. I’m going to draw on that experience in the course of the next few minutes, for it is as a judge that I have been given the honor to speak before you.
The occasion for our coming together like this aligns with the approach of two separate events on the judicial side of the national public life: the end of the Supreme Court’s term, with its quickened pace of decisions, and a confirmation proceeding for the latest nominee to fill a seat on the court. We will as a consequence be hearing and discussing a particular sort of criticism that is frequently aimed at the more controversial Supreme Court decisions: criticism that the court is making up the law, that the court is announcing constitutional rules that cannot be found in the Constitution, and that the court is engaging in activism to extend civil liberties. A good many of us, I’m sure a good many of us here, intuitively react that this sort of commentary tends to miss the mark. But we don’t often pause to consider in any detail the conceptions of the Constitution and of constitutional judging that underlie the critical rhetoric, or to compare them with the notions that lie behind our own intuitive responses. I’m going to try to make some of those comparisons this afternoon.
The charges of lawmaking and constitutional novelty seem to be based on an impression of the Constitution, and on a template for deciding constitutional claims, that go together something like this. A claim is made in court that the government is entitled to exercise a power, or an individual is entitled to claim the benefit of a right, that is set out in the terms of some particular provision of the Constitution. The claimant quotes the provision and provides evidence of facts that are said to prove the entitlement that is claimed. Once they have been determined, the facts on their face either do or do not support the claim. If they do, the court gives judgment for the claimant; if they don’t, judgment goes to the party contesting the claim. On this view, deciding constitutional cases should be a straightforward exercise of reading fairly and viewing facts objectively.
There are, of course, constitutional claims that would be decided just about the way this fair reading model would have it. If one of today’s 21-year-old college graduates claimed a place on the ballot for one of the United States Senate seats open this year, the claim could be disposed of simply by showing the person’s age, quoting the constitutional provision that a senator must be at least 30 years old, and interpreting that requirement to forbid access to the ballot to someone who could not qualify to serve if elected. No one would be apt to respond that lawmaking was going on, or object that the age requirement did not say anything about ballot access. The fair reading model would describe pretty much what would happen. But cases like this do not usually come to court, or at least the Supreme Court. And for the ones that do get there, for the cases that tend to raise the national blood pressure, the fair reading model has only a tenuous connection to reality. Here’s the leadup:
…The Constitution has a good share of deliberately open-ended guarantees, like rights to due process of law, equal protection of the law, and freedom from unreasonable searches. These provisions cannot be applied like the requirement for 30-year-old senators; they call for more elaborate reasoning to show why very general language applies in some specific cases but not in others, and over time the various examples turn into rules that the Constitution does not mention.
But this explanation hardly scratches the surface. The reasons that constitutional judging is not a mere combination of fair reading and simple facts extend way beyond the recognition that constitutions have to have a lot of general language in order to be useful over long stretches of time. Another reason is that the Constitution contains values that may well exist in tension with each other, not in harmony. Yet another reason is that the facts that determine whether a constitutional provision applies may be very different from facts like a person’s age or the amount of the grocery bill; constitutional facts may require judges to understand the meaning that the facts may bear before the judges can figure out what to make of them. And this can be tricky. To show you what I’m getting at, I’ve picked two examples of what can really happen, two stories of two great cases. The two stories won’t, of course, give anything like a complete description either of the Constitution or of judging, but I think they will show how unrealistic the fair reading model can be.
I think you should read it.