Souter and His Front Porch

By Russell Arben Fox for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC

I’m willing to bet that in all likelihood, a large majority of those reading this site do not have kind feelings for retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, assuming they have any opinion of him at all. For a certain stripe of religious conservative, for whom an interpretation of the Constitution which forbids the invention of new rights or the support of existing rights relevant to issues of biological life and human sexuality (in short, I’m talking about abortion and same-sex marriage here) is really the only measure of “conservatism” which matters, Souter was a traitor, a judge promoted by Republicans and confirmed by Republicans who started to vote with the “liberals” on the Supreme Court, and that’s that. Well, maybe so. Having become tired myself of the attempts by activists on both sides to articulate their ideologies through the judiciary, I confess that I mostly recuse myself from such arguments. Still, as the nation looks forward to whomever President Obama asks the Senate to confirm has Souter’s replacement, it might be worth taking a moment to wonder if David Souter, an old school local New Hampshire Republican if there ever was one, might not have been the most “conservative” Justice on the bench, after all:

At the relatively young age of 69, Souter is giving up what he once called “the world’s best job in the world’s worst city” for a life of simple solitude in Weare[, New Hampshire]. It is a rural hamlet that fascinates him so much, he has told neighbors he may someday write a history of the town.

When he departs this summer in his Volkswagen sedan — he dislikes flying and always drives himself to and from Washington, leaving at odd hours to game the traffic — Souter will cross the Piscataquog River, drive past country stands selling maple syrup and fresh eggs, and turn down a narrow, unmarked dirt road. Here, at the dead end of Cilley Hill Road, is home.

The crooked, rusty mailbox and the metal horse-and-buggy sign on the red barn door bear the name Souter. The brown paint on the wooden colonial farmhouse is peeling away, the second-floor curtains are drawn, and the windows are sagging with age. A rusted wheelbarrow sits out back, and a bird’s nest rests atop a lantern on the shadowy bare-wood porch. The creaking, unkempt house looks so haunted that some people who passed by said they assumed it had been abandoned. The only sign of cultivation is five daffodils blooming alongside the weeds. But Souter’s home is tranquil, with the quiet broken only by the buzzing of insects, the chirping of birds and the whistling of wind through the soaring pine and maple trees. Souter once wrote in a letter to the late Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun that he is at peace here during the court’s recesses. “The restoration comes not only from the landscape and air, though they play their significant part, but from the people,” Souter wrote. “I feel a strong need to be in New Hampshire for as much of the summer as I can manage it.”

The farmhouse made national news three years ago, when property rights activists tried to seize it by eminent domain to build a hotel. They were seeking revenge for Souter’s vote in a 2005 ruling that a Connecticut city could take a group of older waterfront homes for development. Their effort failed….

Washington is filled with people who rose from rural roots to political stardom and became fixtures in the capital. But that’s not Souter’s story. He has famously shunned Washington’s glittery social scene and leads an unusually reclusive life for a public official. He dislikes schmoozing at cocktail parties, refuses media interviews and rarely poses for photographs….Souter has a self-awareness about his shyness in public, even joking about his awkwardness to colleagues. “In a perfect world, I would never give another speech, address, talk, lecture or whatever as long as I live,” Souter wrote to Blackmun. “I know you get a kick out of these things, but you have to realize that God gave you an element of sociability, and I think he gave you the share otherwise reserved for me.”

A disciplined man, Souter has been known to work 12-hour days and keep a daily diary. But he cares little for material goods. He appears almost gaunt, and it has been joked that his black robe adds color to his attire. Rather than dining out for lunch, he usually has yogurt and an apple at his desk. “And he eats the apple the old-fashioned New England way: He eats it right through the core,” [Thomas Rath, one of Souter’s closest friends] said. “There is nothing left but the stem.”

Souter is the court’s wealthiest justice, but perhaps its most frugal. He arrived in 1990 with reported assets of $627,010, but thanks to a shrewd investment in a New England bank, he now is worth between $6 million and $30 million, according to his financial disclosures. Yet he resides not in a glamorous Georgetown townhouse but in the same mundane Southwest Washington apartment. One night in 2004, during a jog by himself around nearby Fort McNair, he was mugged. Souter, friends said, never much liked Washington. So he is returning to Weare, a blue-collar and decidedly fiscally conservative town where the big political fight of the day is over whether to charge public high school students to ride the bus to school….

A solitary soul, Souter enjoys hiking mountains and strolling through nearby Clough State Park. At night, he goes for long walks alone, a flashlight guiding him down Weare’s winding roads. Residents can tell he is home by the police cruiser that drives up and down his street by the hour.

Souter is a ferocious reader — he has thousands of books piled up in the farmhouse — and friends said he is eager, finally, to organize them into a library. “He’s given his whole life to public service, and I think it got harder and harder for him to go back to Washington the last couple of years,” said Rath, whose daughter held the Bible at Souter’s swearing-in. “This is where he belongs. It’s a very different world here, one where it’s no surprise to bump into him at the Shaw’s market. He likes that. He’s very comfortable here. Here he’s just David; he’s not Mr. Justice….Everybody needs a place like that.”

  • Share: