March 11, 2009

Justice David Souter describes the Supreme Court term as "sort of annual intellectual lobotomy."

That slipped out along with some lofty comments about how people need to read more and how he's forced to do his serious reading in the summers between Court terms.

That makes some people, like Tony Mauro, the author of the linked article, wonder about rumors that he may be leaving the Court:
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.
Others I'm sure would put that more harshly: If you don't appreciate the great work of the Supreme Court, get the hell out.

Me, I would speculate that he's fine with the Supreme Court work and he was just being funny — and effusive about the value of serious literature.

ADDED: On reflection, I think the problem he's talking about is something I experience as a law professor. I love the work, but it requires me to devote most of my reading time to judicial opinions and lawprof articles and books. This kind of reading is useful raw material for doing what one loves to do, but it isn't enriching on a deep enough level.

My main problem with Souter is that he is one of the judges who writes the long tedious opinions that I have to chew my way through. May I suggest that if he wants more of a challenge during the Court's term that he devote himself to writing better sentences? Just on the Strunk and White level, could you please edit the hell out of those damned things?

If you don't like what reading that stuff does to your brain, why do you do what you do to my brain? If the Term for you is a lobotomy, consider that you are also the lobotomist!

22 comments:

Jason (the commenter) said...

I think people are just salivating at the idea of Obama making a Supreme Court nomination. Anything any Justice does or says for the next four years will be viewed in that context.

traditionalguy said...

Souter sounds like a sane man. I don't know any sane lawyers that are not burned out from enduring the endless posturing of the legal tug of war over every idea and every angle of the latest sophisticated legal arguments. That in a nutshell is why Law schools and courts like the case method that finds a case's holdings in the facts and the decision rather than in men's overstated arguments. Real life is 1000 times more interesting than the small world of legal reasoning. When real litigants win and lose something, then there is something of interest in Judicial work. Souter is not suddenly losing interest. He is mentioning that there is little or nothing interesting in his line of work.

Kevin said...

Obama's record with nominations makes me wonder if his choice will be off parole before the Senate confirmation hearings.

Simon said...

I think that's Tony getting a little creative with the quote - in the context of Souter's full answer (CSPAN has the video), I don't think it carries quite the same meaning Mauro et al are giving it.

Simon said...

traditionalguy said...
"Souter is not suddenly losing interest. He is mentioning that there is little or nothing interesting in his line of work."

That's not at all what he's saying. Watch the video.

Host with the Most said...

Ah, the Supreme Court.

The Justices!

Meanwhile, over at the Obama Department of Justice, guess which new Best and Brightest Obama has nominated for the number 2 spot behind Eric Holder:

Pornography Advocate and Penthouse Defender of Teenage Porn David Ogden:

Who has Obama nominated to fill the number two position that Eric Holder held in the prior administration? His nominee for deputy attorney general is David Ogden, another lawyer from the Clinton Justice Department. Ogden has represented clients like Penthouse and PHE (the nation’s largest distributor of hardcore pornography) in numerous obscenity cases, opposing any attempts to limit the production and distribution of pornography. Ogden opposed pornography filters in public libraries and fought requiring pornographers to verify that their models were over 18. He seems to believe that not only should children have access to pornography in public libraries, but they should be able to make it, too. Even more disturbing, he has argued repeatedly that there should be virtually no limits on abortion and has been a leading opponent of parental notification in abortion cases. In fact, he argued in a brief that abortion rarely causes any psychological or emotional problems — abortion provides women with “feelings of relief and happiness.”

Jason (the commenter) said...

He seems to believe that not only should children have access to pornography in public libraries, but they should be able to make it, too

Yeah! The pornography laws are ridiculous. They're supposedly set up to protect children. Then the children take naked pictures of themselves, send it someone else, and get labeled child pornographers for the rest of their lives.

While they're at it they can drop the age of consent to 14 or so. It was no one's business who I was doing as a teen. More violating of my constitutional rights!

traditionalguy said...

@Simon... I had not seen the video but only read the article. At your suggestion my eyes finally spotted the video and in it I heard another idea than what the writer of the article had said was from Souter's address. Again Souter is sane and he does not seem tired of his work. Souter says he wishes everyone would study real History of the earlier times surrounding earlier Constitutional decisions being superseded. The man is a scholar when he suggests that real history can be found and learned today. That is very impressive in today's world of Wikipaedia and Astroturfing of fake history readings by liberals and by conservatives alike. The "He who controls the past..." quote by Orwell comes to mind. I hope Souter never considers resigning.

Joe said...

I'm a computer programmer, but I know where Souter is coming from. When you are working on really tough mental problems that are so difficult that they engage your mind 24x7 it's very draining.

Simon said...

TradGuy - you have to watch these columnists closely - even the good ones like Tony. ;) "Souter thinks that life on the court is like a lobotomy" is a much better headline than "Souter thinks that life on the court is all-absorbing," so that's the implication a journalist is going to run with. Even when the quote is 100% verbatim, the shine on the words in the light of the moment can be important to meaning - the premise of so-called "spin."

ricpic said...

"...he was just being funny."

Yeah, that Dave Souter, a regular laugh riot.

Simon said...

ricpic said...
"Yeah, that Dave Souter, a regular laugh riot."

And how many times have you met Justice Souter, Ricpic?

Richard Dolan said...

This struck me as the most interesting thing in the article: "He ended by quoting Oliver Cromwell, the 17th century British leader, who once said these words should appear above the entrance of all schools, courthouses and public buildings: 'Consider That Ye May Be Wrong.'"

Excellent advice. Would that Souter followed it more often, especially whenever he was being urged to discover some unenumerated constitutional right that had supposedly been hiding in a penumbra for all these years.

ricpic said...

I lived in New England amongst the anointed Dave Souters, Simon, I don't have to meet him personally to have the type down pat.

The Elder said...

"Souter sounds like a sane man. . . Real life is 1000 times more interesting than the small world of legal reasoning."

Sorry, traditionalguy, but Justice Souter has never had much touch with the reality of life that most Americans know. At the time of his appointment to SCOTUS, he was a never-married, introverted State Supreme Court judge who was still living with his Mother in the same house in which he grew up. The tone of his comments suggests to me that not much has changed through the years with regard to his lack of contact with people. It is a lifestyle that allows one who is already inclined to keep himself separate from other people, to be even more so. It may even explain his writing style, since his sentences are written more for an audience of one rather than for other people.

Introverts are often drawn to the bench, particularly the appellate bench. It is often discussed in relation to the subject of judicial isolation and the high rates of depression.

I hope Justice Souter has a good therapist.

Simon said...

Ann Althouse said...
"My main problem with Souter is that he is one of the judges who writes the long tedious opinion that I have to chew my way through."

I have completely the opposite reaction to Souter's writing - I find him one of the most enjoyable writers on the court. For example, Kennedy wrote the plurality in the § 2 case from earlier in the week, but I know Kennedy's writing style is unbearable, so I just skipped straight to Souter's dissent in order to get the dimensions of the case in mind before trying to wade through the marshes of the Kennedy opinion. Neither disappointed. His dissent in Seminole Tribe is another example - what it loses in brevity it wins back in elegance and flow, at least in my view. There are plenty of cases where I've found a good Scalia or Souter dissent particularly helpful for understanding or remembering a case.

He has a very different style to a Roberts or an Easterbrook, but one has ever in mind Neil Peart's warning - as salient in law as in music - that KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) is well and good but one must be careful that it doesn't turn into LOVE (Leave Out Virtually Everything). Otherwise you end up turning into Richard Posner, whose style that has a tremendous appeal when first encountered, but becomes somewhat wearisome after prolonged exposure, at least in my own view.

Wouldn't it be interesting to poll your students on which judges they regard as particularly good writers?

Ricpic - that's a funny way to pronounce "never."

jeff said...

Jesus. While the ice shelf melts all Althouse readers can do is talk about one sentence a judge said? Once again, everyone just sucks up to their right wing friends. SNARL SPUTTER BUSH SUCKS.

Seven Machos said...

Althouse -- That's very interesting what you added. I had a law professor who argued that Oliver Wendell Holmes was a crappy thinker on many levels. The reason he was so successful as a judge was because he wrote really well. But good law and good writing are not the same thing.

Just some food for thought...

Thief said...

Souter needs to edit himself, as do all Supreme Court justices, because Chemerinsky sure as hell can't.

Peter said...

Considering how many laws we have that stand in direct contravention of the First, Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Nineth and Tenth Amendments that the Supremes let stand, the whole lot of them HAVE had lobotomies.

I cannot understand how all these clowns in black robes, as well as all you lawyers and law professers cannot seem to grasp phrases like "Congress shall make no law".

I realize that more complicated items are more confusing, things like "Powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people"

Why is it that a poor old country boy knows what "no law" means but all these educated folks find it beyond them?

Simon said...

Peter, intellectual modesty and the mere fact that the contours of the free speech clause have been debated by generations of learned jurists should be a cue that if it seems simple, you're probably missing something. "Congress shall make no law" - does that mean that ONLY Congress and not the executive or judicial branches can violate the first amendment? Your free speech can be taken away by the executive and the First Amendment is silent so long as Congress didn't pass a law? Does that mean that libel is unconstitutional? Why not? And that's before we even get into the more complicated question of what the scope of the substantive right protected is, whoever and whatever it's being protected from. Sometimes things can look deceptively simple.

Peter said...

Sorry, Simon, the simplicity is not deceptive. The reality is that various levels of government have taken power that they were never meant to have. In a just society there would be government types, and their enablers covered in tar and feathers with the worst hanging from lamp posts.