A Different Take on Justice Souter:
In his post below, my co-blogger Todd Zywicki writes:
In the end, I don't think that anyone would champion Souter as a anything other than a mediocre Justice. It is hard to measure how "good" a Justice is--one could imagine many different criteria: smarts, influence, coalition-building skills, etc. No matter what criteria one uses, however, doesn't it seem to be the consensus that Souter is certainly near the bottom, if not at the bottom, of the current Court? Perhaps this is an unusually talented Court. But still, Souter is by any measure a weak link on the Court most would think.
  I disagree.

  When I was a law clerk, five years ago, I ended up being very impressed by Justice Souter. Of all the liberal-leaning Justices, Souter became by far my favorite. True, he is not a great writer: His opinions don't "sing." And I often disagreed with his approach. At the same time, I ended up being very impressed with his intelligence and integrity during the Term. He's a sharp judge, and his words are 100% his own. Plus, I thought his oral argument questions were (and still are) among the very best. When it's a case I know inside-and-out,the chances are that Justice Souter will ask the most piercing question that gets to the very heart of the matter. He's not a flashy guy, and the outsider can't see the process that leads to his decisions. But at least based on my experience, I thought he was an impressive Justice.

  UPDATE: I should also add, in response to the point about Souter being an "accident of history," that I think most Justices are accidents of history. Once in a while someone ends up on the Court who has a plausible claim of really deserving it; think Holmes or Cardozo, both towering figures in the law before being nominated. But I think it's much more common for the pick to be someone relatively obscure.

  ANOTHER UPDATE: While I'm disagreeing with Todd, let me also take on his comment about Janet Reno:
Reno, by contrast, was a real menace and her elevation by accident of history was, I think, by most accounts a disaster. Her utter lack of qualifications and temperament for the job left her completely dependent on the Clintons' patronage so she feared above all being fired and returned to obscurity.
  Again, I disagree. I served under AG Reno for two years when I was at DOJ, and I found her to be pretty impressive, actually. My sense of her was that she was independent and did her best to be principled, and she did what she thought was right even if she knew it would be politically controversial. If course, you can agree or disagree with her individual decisions as AG: My own views were mixed. But as someone at DOJ at the time, I thought she did what she thought was correct.

  Finally, I can't disagree strongly enough with Todd's claim that Reno was "completely dependent on the Clintons' patronage." My sense at the time was that Reno didn't like the Clintons and the Clintons hated Reno. Reno's best guarantee of job security was her independence: Her independence made it politically difficult for Clinton to fire her.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. A Different Take on Justice Souter:
  2. Justice Souter and Accidents of History: