Saturday, October 25, 2014
My Account  | Login
Nashua;57.0;http://forecast.weather.gov/images/wtf/small/sct.png;2014-10-25 19:22:42
Saturday, September 15, 2012

Justice Souter speaks at debut of new NH forum

CONCORD – Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said Friday the greatest problem facing America today is ignorance of civics – basic knowledge of the constitution and an understanding of the structure of government.

“We know, with reliable evidence, that two-thirds of the people of the United States don’t know we have three separate branches of government,” Souter told an audience of more than 1,300 at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord. ...

Sign up to continue

Print subscriber?    Sign up for Full Access!

Please sign up for as low as 36 cents per day to continue viewing our website.

Digital subscribers receive

  • Unlimited access to all stories from nashuatelegraph.com on your computer, tablet or smart phone.
  • Access nashuatelegraph.com, view our digital edition or use our Full Access apps.
  • Get more information at nashuatelegraph.com/fullaccess
Sign up or Login

CONCORD – Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said Friday the greatest problem facing America today is ignorance of civics – basic knowledge of the constitution and an understanding of the structure of government.

“We know, with reliable evidence, that two-thirds of the people of the United States don’t know we have three separate branches of government,” Souter told an audience of more than 1,300 at the Capitol Center for the Arts in Concord.

Souter was the keynote speaker at the opening event of a New Hampshire civic engagement project called “Constitutionally Speaking.” He recently founded the New Hampshire Institute for Civic Education, designed to offer professional development courses to teachers.

Souter, who retired from the Supreme Court in 2009 after 19 years, rarely speaks publicly. He also made a decision upon his retirement to keep his personal court papers closed for 50 years.

But Friday he spoke candidly for 90 minutes about his philosophy on constitutional interpretation and some of the rulings he was involved in, and one he was not. The insights he offered were tantamount to those he shared in his 2010 commencement speech at Harvard, which was hailed by legal scholars.

Souter, 72, said anyone who read his past opinions on campaign financing “knows perfectly well I would have gone the other way on Citizens United.” He was referring to the 5-4 ruling, issued after he left the court, that said limiting political expenditures by corporations and unions violates the First Amendment. The ruling stemmed from a challenge to the campaign finance reform law, also known as the McCain-Feingold Act.

Souter still hears cases on the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, and would not elaborate on the Citizens United case, saying it would lead to a discussion of politics. He drew laughter and applause.

He said judges must look beyond the plain language of the Constitution to resolve tensions between the competing rights and principles it guarantees. His position is at odds with that of Justice Antonin Scalia, who espouses adhering whenever possible to the strict language of the constitution. Souter says it can’t be done.

“Nobody in their right mind in 1791 thought freedom of speech and freedom of association would carry with it the right to join organizations, like the NAACP,” Souter said. “If you interpret that narrowly, it’s not going to mean anything.”

“There are legally, constitutionally recognized values that can be in conflict with each other,” he said. “They can’t all win all the time.”

Souter drew laughter when asked by a student how he would have ruled on the national health care law. “I’ll pass on that,” he said.

Souter said the court’s controversial 2005 ruling in a Connecticut eminent domain case – in which he ruled with the 5-4 majority – was misreported by the press and misunderstood by the public. He said the holding that eminent domain could be used to take lands and hand them over to a private developer broke no new ground. That practice, he said, had been upheld by the court since the days of railroads and power lines.

“That case is fascinating not for what it held but for the way it was perceived,” said Souter, whose former house in Weare was picketed after the ruling came out.

Most of Souter’s remarks came during a conversation with PBS NewsHour’s Emmy-award winning senior correspondent Margaret Warner.

On the topic of civics, Souter said he fears ignorance of who to hold accountable for problems in government will leave people powerless to act and unmotivated to vote. “That’s the way democracy dies.”

In the event of another terrorist attack or financial meltdown, Souter said, those ignorant of civics will be more prone to hand over power to someone who professes to have the solution.

“I am not a pessimist, but I also am not an optimist about the future of American democracy,” Souter said. “The political problems are going to turn consequential. We’re still in the game, but we have serious work to do.”

Souter, who lives in Hopkinton, is a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, and has been the state’s Attorney General and served on both the Superior and New Hampshire Supreme Courts.

Friday’s event was originally scheduled for the Concord City Auditorium, but pre-registration for its 850 seats filled within a week, with a waiting list of 400. The event was moved to the Capitol Center, with its 1,300 seats, and there the waiting list grew to 350 names by the night of the event.

In addition to Souter’s civic education institution, other sponsors of the civic engagement initiative are the New Hampshire Supreme Court Society, UNH School of Law and the New Hampshire Humanities Council.