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David Souter says emotional goodbye at judicial conference

Retiring Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter gave an emotional speech during a judicial conference here Tuesday, saying that a judge’s place in history is not reserved only for the “perfect” opinion or the landmark ruling, but for a “craftsman” who did his best in every case.

“I didn’t intend to have this be a farewell,” Souter, 69, told about 300 judges and lawyers at the annual conference of the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. “I swear to you that I was not the leak.”

Souter announced Friday -- after media reports Thursday night -- that he would retire at the end of the court term this summer. (Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont said Tuesday that Souter had told him of his plans in March.)

But now that the news was out, Souter said, “It gives me a chance to say some things on my mind. . . . I’ve been doing a mental reckoning of sorts.”

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Souter avoided all mention of controversial issues and cases but said he took great pride in doing the daily work of a judge. He spoke slowly, with a melancholy tone, and appeared to nearly choke up at several points.

The significance of most legal rulings “is very slight,” he said. But like a craftsman, the work is its own reward: “It is doing something worthwhile and trying to do it well.”

No one at the Supreme Court is said to work harder than Souter.

As a state supreme court judge in New Hampshire and in his 19 years on the high court in Washington, he was known by his colleagues for carefully studying and weighing the record in each case. He has been less interested in applying broad principles to all cases than in finding the right result in each case.

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Souter handles issues that come to the Supreme Court from the 3rd Circuit, which is based in Philadelphia. Its jurisdiction includes New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Each year, he has attended the annual conference and talked about the law, the Supreme Court or personal experiences. A year ago, he spoke of walking around the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

On Tuesday, he spoke of visiting Westminster Hall in London last fall and standing at a spot where great trials were held. He said he felt part of a long tradition of lawyers and judges. “We are the members of a great guild,” he said.

He also spoke of the late Justice William J. Brennan Jr., who also oversaw the 3rd Circuit. Brennan stepped down in 1990 after suffering a stroke, clearing the way for Souter to be appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

Souter said that before he attended his first meeting of the circuit conference, he called Brennan to ask if he had any message to pass on. “Just give them my love,” Souter quoted Brennan as saying. Souter then paused for a long moment.

“That goes for me too,” he said.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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