Law & Courts Federal File

School Days

By Mark Walsh — April 18, 2006 2 min read
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U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter rarely speaks in public, outside his cerebral participation in the court’s oral arguments. He has a reputation for leading a hermit-like existence.

So on April 9, participants in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new school in Weare, N.H., were surprised to see the shy justice. Organizers had kept his acceptance under wraps.

Wearing a “WMS Rocks” sticker, for Weare Middle School, Justice Souter spoke for some 10 minutes, then donned a hard hat and helped shovel earth, said David Pabst, the school’s principal. The current school, which serves grades 5-8 in the 1,200 student Weare district, is being replaced by the new facility.

Weare school board member Marge Burke helped attract Justice Souter, who was born in Massachusetts but moved to Weare with his parents at age 11. “He grew up and went to school here, so we thought it would be neat if he could come and be a part of it,” she said. “Every time I glanced at him, he seemed to be having a good time.”

According to the Concord Monitor, whose account was confirmed by Mr. Pabst and Ms. Burke, Justice Souter said that distance from Weare had given him a perspective to reflect on his upbringing there. “I trace back a significant number of … values that inform my workday,” he said, according to the newspaper.

The justice wasn’t always fond of school, and he would count down the 180 days until the end of the year. He said he now counts the days until the Supreme Court’s summer recess, when he returns to New Hampshire. He has said his annual returns there have a “restorative power.”

Justice Souter, 66, also recalled his 6th grade teacher in 1950-51, Miss Purington, who instilled in him an interest in history. That year “influenced my work and my interpretation of the Constitution, and there isn’t a day goes by that it doesn’t influence what I do,” he said.

Miss Purington was at the event. Now Betty Straw, she and the justice exchanged memories afterwards, Ms. Burke said.

Justice Souter even alluded to a controversy over his vote in a Supreme Court decision last year that upheld a Connecticut city’s efforts to seize homes for economic development. Reacting to the ruling, some activists launched a campaign for Justice Souter’s family property in Weare to be seized and for an inn dubbed the “Lost Liberty Hotel” to be built on the site. The effort failed.

To the laughter of the school crowd, the Concord Monitor reported, Justice Souter said a friend in Weare had told him, “You’re a lot better off breaking ground for a middle school than breaking ground for the Lost Liberty Hotel.”

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