Sunday, May 03, 2009

Last week Justice David H. Souter submitted a letter announcing his pending retirement from the Supreme Court of the United States in June, giving President Barack Obama his first opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court Justice that could solidify his legacy for years to come.

When President George H.W. Bush first nominated Justice Souter to the Supreme Court, conservatives and liberals considered him a stealth candidate whose opinions were apparently known to no one but the president but by the time we submitted his letter of resignation he had proven himself to be a reliable member of the more liberal faction on the bench.

In 1992 he and two of his Reagan-appointed nominees (Sandra Day O'Connor & Anthony Kennedy) co-authored the opinion that upheld a woman's right to an abortion while providing states more leeway when imposing restrictions on its use. Conservatives would use his vote on that contentious issue as their new rallying cry - "No more Souters" - but he would vote with the more liberal wing on many issues.

Gay Americans appreciated his reliable votes to extend basic civil rights protections to them. He joined the six-justice majority that overturned a Colorado amendment forbidding state and local agencies from prohibiting sexual orientation-based discrimination and another overturning Texas' "Homosexual Conduct Law," granting gay Americans the same intimate privacy rights everyone else takes for granted. He vociferously dissented when the Court upheld the Boy Scouts' right to bar gays from their organization.

Justice Souter voted to uphold laws designed to offset the effects of racial segregation, voting with the majority that preserved in part a college affirmative action program, and with the minority that voted to uphold a school district program designed to ensure racial integration in the public schools.

Those of us who believe in preserving the separation of church and state were pleased with his rulings against government-endorsed prayer at public school graduation ceremonies and football games as well as his vote against a school voucher program.

Most recently he sided with the majority in restricting Obama's predecessor from holding enemy combatants indefinitely without a hearing justifying the suspenion of habeas corpus rights.

President Barack Obama's nominee to replace Justice Souter probably won't alter the balance of power on the Supreme Court. He is, after all, expected to pick a liberal who would vote, it is hoped, to uphold basic privacy and civil rights. Specifically President Obama said he would appoint someone with not only a "sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity" but also someone who "understands that justice isn't about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a case book." "It is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people's lives -- whether they can make a living and care for their families; whether they feel safe in their homes and welcome in their own nation."

Let's hope his nominee, like Souter, will know how the law affects people in their daily lives and will do his or her best to make sure the law isn't used to make any American citizen feel "unwelcome" in our nation.

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