President Obama Speaks About a Successor for Justice Souter

Today, following the announcement that Justice David Souter will retire from the Supreme Court at the end of this term, President Obama elaborated upon his criteria for selection of judicial nominees. In the past, we here at CAC have been critical of certain remarks by President Obama that we believe have fed into attacks from the right. His statements today, reproduced below in their entirety, represent a big improvement:

Now, the process of selecting someone to replace Justice Souter is among my most serious responsibilities as president, so I will seek somebody with a sharp and independent mind and a record of excellence and integrity.

I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; 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.

I view that quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles, as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.

I will seek somebody who is dedicated to the rule of law, who honors our constitutional traditions, who respects the integrity of the judicial process and the appropriate limits of the judicial role.

I will seek somebody who shares my respect for constitutional values on which this nation was founded and who brings a thoughtful understanding of how to apply them in our time.

As I make this decision, I intend to consult with members of both parties across the political spectrum. And it is my hope that we can swear in our new Supreme Court justice in time for him or her to be seated by the first Monday in October, when the court’s new term begins.
President Obama’s statement echoes our call for a nominee who will follow the rule of law and adhere to our Constitution and our Founding values. While President Obama still uses empathy as a criterion, his explanation of why empathy is important is much improved.

Notwithstanding the assertions of some on the right, understanding and empathy can be fully consistent with a judge’s oath and the rule of law. Judges must be able to understand the situations facing individuals very different from themselves to provide the equal justice our Constitution requires. Indeed, our nation’s charter itself reflects the work of successive generations of Americans whose hopes and struggles produced Amendments that secured greater equality and freedom.

This week’s Supreme Court argument in the NAMUDNO voting rights case shows that selecting a nominee who will adhere to the Constitution is more important than ever. The conservative Justices on the Court who profess fidelity to the constitutional text appeared eager to strike down a critical statute enacted to protect the right to vote. With the right nominee, Obama can help get the Supreme Court back on the right track.