Gettysburg trip changed perspective of Supreme Court justice

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — A trip to the Gettysburg battlefield changed Supreme Court Justice David Souter’s perspective on handling difficult cases that inevitably come a judge’s way.

In a rare public address Tuesday, Souter admitted that at least one Supreme Court case — he didn’t name it — once prompted him to ask, "Why do I have to resolve that case?"

He found an answer last year when he and his law clerks and secretaries visited the battlefield in Pennsylvania where the Civil War changed course in July 1863.


Illustrating how a single act can alter history, Souter noted that the commander assigned to hold the far end of the Union line had employed a bayonet charge in a desperate maneuver — one that ultimately ended a Confederate attack.

"It seems a fair assessment that one of the pivots of American history was at that place, at that moment," he said.

Looking back at his complaint about difficult cases, Souter said, "I could not ever again, under any circumstance, say it is unfair that I have to do this."

Other justices may use nationally televised interviews to expound on the court and great issues of the day, as Justice Antonin Scalia did this week. Not Souter. His speech Tuesday did not contain a word about Supreme Court cases, his philosophy of judging or his colleagues.

Instead, in flat New England tones, the 68-year-old justice told an annual conference of federal judges from Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania about the value of different perspectives. He speaks to the group most years and his talk was open to reporters, although photographs and tape recordings were not allowed.

The famously restrained justice — who thanked someone for providing him yogurt while everyone else ate chicken for lunch — displayed the same dry wit that surfaces during court arguments.

Recalling the "greatest fascination and pleasure" of his favorite constitutional law class at Harvard Law School, Souter said, "There was not a lot of competition."

Remarking on a portrait on display at the Supreme Court of an unnaturally svelte William Howard Taft, the rotund former president and chief justice, Souter called it "the greatest example of aesthetic weight loss in the history of American portraiture."


Souter also told the story of Judge Learned Hand, who once hurled a paperweight in anger at his law clerk Gerald Gunther. "Fortunately, he was a poor pitcher," Souter said, adding that the object missed its target.

He said he tells his clerks that though he sometimes raises his voice, he has never thrown anything at them. "They realize they are lucky, just like the judge they work for," Souter said.

What To Read Next
Get Local