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Justice Souter Describes Judges' Impact on History as 'Slight'

PHILADELPHIA -- In his first public speech since announcing his retirement from the Supreme Court, Justice David Souter argued Tuesday that while most justices and cases are quickly forgotten, they play an “imperative” role in maintaining a safe, stable democracy.

“For most of us, the very best work that we do sinks into the stream pretty quickly," Souter told more than 300 judges at the annual Third Circuit Judicial Conference in Philadelphia.

"And if we have got to look for a satisfaction that is more than momentary, God knows if we are gonna look for one that endures for a career or a lifetime, we have got to find that satisfaction not in the great moments but in being part of the great stream,” he said. 

Souter, who spoke for only about 14 minutes, was uncharacteristically melancholy and emotional in his remarks to a group he has addressed annually since taking his seat on the nation’s highest court in 1990.

Souter, 69, oversees the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Quoting a legal scholar who once questioned his place in history, Souter’s answer was that judges must look at the big picture when considering their impact.

“Our value does not come from the moment we all aspire to have---the moment of the error-free trial, of the perfect decision and opinion…(we) thought should get into the case books by next year,” Souter said, noting that there are only a handful of famous decisions remembered beyond 20 years like Marbury v. Madison (1803).

“If we are a lucky we all have a few of those (decisions) in our careers. But if we are honest we have to realize our significance, even if we are lucky, is very slight,” he said.

Souter, who has previously described returning to the court every year as an “annual intellectual lobotomy,” also recalled a recent visit to Westminster Abbey, the burial site for former British leaders where the royal court met for centuries.

“I think I saw the individuals whose faces were obscure and names were unknown and I think realized that I was part of that company,” he added.

More important Souter said is for judges to think of themselves as part of a “great guild" whose members are mostly “forgotten” but still fought to keep their values alive.

“The law has replenished its people as it has replenished its cases,” he said. “There has to be a safe place and we are it.”