Souter Passes 14-Year Mark on Supreme Court

David Souter's (search) encounter with street thugs in Washington put him in a hospital emergency room - and newspaper headlines, which was perhaps just as unnerving for the Supreme Court's (search) most private member.

In the 14 years since Souter arrived in the capital with his belongings in a U-Haul truck, he has shunned all perks that come with being a justice. No hobnobbing at exclusive parties, writing books or teaching in exotic locations.

He splits his time between a farm house off a dirt road in a small New Hampshire town and a tiny apartment in Washington. He drives a compact car. He eats yogurt at his desk for lunch.

In a city where nearly everyone has something to say, Souter never gives interviews and rarely is photographed.

"In a perfect world, I would never give another speech, address, talk, lecture or whatever as long as I live," Souter said in a 1996 letter to Justice Harry Blackmun (search) that was in the more than 1,500 boxes of papers unsealed in March on the fifth anniversary of Blackmun's death.

That same year, Souter told a congressional committee, "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom it's going to roll over my dead body."

At the court, he is known for working into the night, sometimes painstakingly slowly on often the court's most technical cases.

Police have said they do not believe Souter's position had anything to do with the assault by a group of young men Friday night as the 64-year-old justice jogged alone not far from his house. He was treated for minor injuries and was back at work within hours. A court spokeswoman would give no details of the incident or Souter's injuries, beyond a brief statement issued hours after Souter's release from the hospital.

"Justice Souter so treasures his privacy," said Emory University law professor David Garrow, who has written extensively about the Supreme Court and Souter. "My strongest instinct is he is furious at himself for allowing it to happen ... uncomfortable, embarrassed, quietly infuriated."

In 1990, when the first President Bush named Souter to the Supreme Court, he was nicknamed the "stealth nominee" because so little was known about him despite his decades in public service as a prosecutor and judge.

At the time, Conservative Campaign Fund (search) leader Peter Flaherty opposed the choice and complained: "This man has been on the planet for 50 years, never given a speech, written an article."

Since then, conservatives have watched with disappointment as Souter sides repeatedly with the court's more liberal members, voting to uphold the Roe v. Wade (search) decision legalizing abortion and limit the use of the death penalty (search).

Flaherty said recently that while he is disappointed by many of Souter's votes, he respects him for not getting "caught up in this cult of celebrity that seems to be gripping our society."

David Hackett Souter (it rhymes with "scooter") was the only child of a bank officer and homemaker, both now dead. He grew up in New Hampshire and returns to the family farmhouse frequently.

"He is a traditional New England person who doesn't believe the rest of the world needs to know about his private life," said friend Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general.

Bush made his surprise selection of Souter less than 72 hours after ailing liberal William Brennan (search) announced he was retiring at age 84. Some critics questioned whether the Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate was too emotionally remote.

His questions during arguments and his writings, as well as personal correspondence in the Blackmun papers, show an engaged, sensitive justice.

For example, when Souter thought a young court visitor was racially profiled in 1997 by police, he undertook a low-key investigation. Recent law school graduate Raafat Toss had told Souter that when he approached Blackmun in the Supreme Court cafeteria, several officers physically restrained him and threatened him with arrest if he did not sit down.

Souter told Blackmun in a letter that he was disturbed by the "pretty awful" situation and was taking it up with court personnel. The records do not show how the matter was resolved.

"That to me says a lot about the man's concern - not only for the big picture of due process, but the little picture of due process in his own cafeteria," said Toss, an Egyptian-born lawyer in New York.

The Blackmun papers, which include letters and postcards from Souter, give a rare glimpse into an intensely personal man with a wry sense of humor.

In a 1996 letter, Souter explained that he was turning down a speaking engagement. "You have to realize that God gave you an element of sociability, and I think he gave you the share otherwise reserved for me," wrote Souter, a former Episcopalian altar boy.

Former Rep. Charles G. Douglas, a Republican who served with Souter on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, said that the justice is not awkward in public but still turns down most invitations. "He'd rather read a good book," Douglas said.

Garrow said that because Souter dislikes Washington, computers and attention, a retirement in the next year is possible even though the second-youngest justice is in good health. "This is not someone who is going to die in Washington, D.C.," Garrow said.