George Bush photo

Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for David H. Souter as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

October 08, 1990

The President. Thank you all, and good afternoon. Mr. Chief Justice, and members of the Court; Members of the United States Congress that are here today, Senate and House; members of the Cabinet; Mr. Vice President: It is truly an honor to greet you all here at the White House and particularly to welcome the friends of this extraordinary Justice to Washington.

Today's ceremony is historic for many reasons. It is, of course, the first Supreme Court appointment of this Presidency. More importantly, it serves as another occasion to celebrate the 200 years of the Constitution of the United States and the independent judiciary it launched.

We meet on Columbus Day, birthplace of a modern hemisphere and an auspicious date for any new beginning. Elsewhere around the world, the origins of many countries are almost lost in time, their roots unclear, unknown. Not so in America. We know exactly where and exactly when our modern history began. But we often forget that back in 1492, Christopher Columbus was searching not for a new world but a new way -- a passage to the riches of the Far East. In fact, Columbus was so confident he carried a letter from Queen Isabella to be delivered to the Emperor of China. This marked history's first known case of mail getting lost on its way -- [laughter] -- across America.

But if our modern history began with a search for earthly treasure, it was a search for something more elusive that actually gave birth to the United States: a search for freedom, a search for justice and self-government, a search that produced the Constitution of the United States.

In ancient China, the word "wisdom" was formed by a combination of the ideograms for wind and lightning -- wind and lightning. And years before the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin lofted a kite upon the wind and seized lightning from the sky. And at age 81, he did it again. For 4 sweltering months in the summer of 1787, 55 delegates met in Philadelphia, debating a wonderful, audacious, unsettling idea. Washington called the Constitution "little short of a miracle." It was -- with wind and lightning -- a nation inventing itself.

One of those 55 delegates was James Wilson, the son of a Scottish farmer and the Pennsylvania lawyer who shared responsibility for writing the Constitution's first draft. A fervent advocate of the sovereignty of the people, Wilson fought for a strong national judiciary and was one of the first to envision the principles of judicial review. Today Wilson's idea stands as one of the cornerstones of our republic and one of America's greatest gifts to the world.

Tomorrow morning, Justice David Souter -- sounds good, doesn't it, David -- [laughter] -- assumes a distinguished seat on the Supreme Court. It was first held by that very same James Wilson, one of the five men that President George Washington first appointed to the Supreme Court in 1789. His successor was Bushrod Washington, a nephew of the President, soldier in the Revolutionary War, and a founding member of one of the many organizations that has recognized David Souter for his intellect -- namely, Phi Beta Kappa.

Thirty-four years ago this distinguished seat became open during the Presidency of one of my personal heroes, Dwight D. Eisenhower. And Ike filled that seat with a jurist who was to become one of the most personally beloved and respected members of the Court, Justice Brennan. Will you stand up? [Applause] I guess you can tell that all of us wish you a most pleasant and active retirement. And thank you for your service, sir.

Like his predecessor, Justice Souter comes to the Court with a distinguished record of judicial service. And I'm grateful that many of the fine judges with whom he has served are able to be with us today. During the recent hearings, Justice Souter clearly demonstrated the superb education, training, and experience that grace his record. But even more important, he once again demonstrated his lifelong devotion to principle -- a simple, straightforward, and enduring principle, a principle quite familiar to Justice James Wilson and the other framers of the Constitution. And the principle is this: The role assigned to judges in our system is to interpret the Constitution and lesser laws, and not to make them.

And on this issue of principle I also want to congratulate and thank the Judiciary Committee and the full Senate for the prompt and faithful exercise of their own constitutional responsibilities. Chairman Biden is with us and Senator Thurmond and others, and we are grateful to you for your role in this procedure.

Like many Americans, I was particularly moved by Justice Souter's opening comments at his hearings. "The first lesson," he said, "simple as it is, is that whatever court we're in, whatever we are doing, at the end of our task some human being is going to be affected. Some human life is going to be changed by what we do." And he added, "And so we had better use every power of our minds and our hearts and our beings to get those rulings right." Now, those are the sentiments of a very thoughtful and caring man.

And just down the street, as the autumn twilight descends on Washington, an underground vault holds America's founding papers, the birth certificate of a nation. The paper is a deep yellow, but the writing is still strong and distinct: "We the People of the United States." And the Constitution is not just a symbol but a living idea, the world's greatest experiment in freedom and self-government, four handwritten pages that promise freedom and justice before the law. Unlike other nations, Americans cannot look to a common heritage of culture or blood. Americans come from every corner of the world, linked only by this -- an idea -- a nation that invented itself.

In just a few moments we will all bear solemn witness to the oath of office of America's newest Supreme Court Justice. And so, let me conclude with Justice Souter's own description of the task ahead: "It is the responsibility to join with eight other people to make the promises of the Constitution a reality of our time, and to preserve that Constitution for the generations that will follow us after we are gone from here."

And now I would invite the Chief Justice, William Rehnquist, with the assistance of Erin Rath, to administer the constitutional oath of office to Justice David Souter. And I also understand that Judge Souter would like Senator Rudman and Tom Rath to join us up here also. So, Mr. Chief Justice, if you will do it, sir.

[At this point, Justice Souter was sworn in.]

Justice Souter. Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, Mr. Chief Justice and members of the Court, members of the leadership, Chairman Biden, Senator Thurmond, and members of the Judiciary Committee, all Members of the Congress, and my friends -- new and old.

It is exactly 11 weeks to the hour since I stood next to the President in another room in this house, facing about the same number of people. I'm sure that you remember, if you saw films of that afternoon, that I was in a state of virtual shock. And I'm glad that I can say that in the 11 weeks since then I've at least advanced in the direction of some degree of composure. I have not, however, in the 11 weeks, got myself to the point this afternoon where I really am capable of saying what is on my mind. What I would like to try to say something about -- I think I can explain to you if I tell you a story about what happened later that afternoon 11 weeks ago.

After the President's news conference, I was immediately taken into Governor Sununu's office and the planning process began. And this went on for I guess about an hour. And at the end of that hour the Governor came in, and he said that the President believed I could probably stand some refurbishing. And I thought, well, the President finally got it right this afternoon. [Laughter] So, I was taken upstairs to where the President and Mrs. Bush were watching the news, and the President gave me a drink to compose myself. And after a couple of minutes of conversation, Mrs. Bush said to me, "How is your mother taking this?" I told her that I called my mother on the phone and I could report that the mother was taking things a lot better than the son was. And the President said, "What's her phone number?" So, I gave him her phone number, and he called my mother on the phone.

And he said -- as best I can recall the conversation, he said, "Now, look, Mrs. Souter," he said, "I want you to know he's okay." [Laughter] He said, "We've got him up here, and we're watching the news, and he's having a drink. And we'll look after him, and he's going to be all right." [Laughter]

That is a phone call, although it did not come to me, that I will never forget and no one in my family will ever forget. And it epitomizes for me the reason why my sense of gratitude to the President goes so far beyond anything that could be called simply "official." And that same sense of gratitude extends not only, of course, to my mother, who took the call that afternoon, but to virtually everyone who has dealt with me in those 11 weeks.

It certainly extends to the Judiciary Committee of the Senate, which used me with consummate fairness, and to all the Members of the Senate who reviewed their recommendation. It extends to the members of the Supreme Court, who, even before today, have done their best to make me feel welcome and have repeated their efforts to me this afternoon. It extends to the ABA [American Bar Association] committee, the standing committee on the judiciary, which reviewed my credentials; and most particularly, to the subcommittee which worked so long on me.

And I wish I could also thank adequately the counselors that I've had, right from that first bit of advice from Governor Sununu so shortly after the nomination to Kenneth Duberstein and to Frederick McClure, who have counseled me in extraordinary ways these last couple of months, to Boyden Gray and to the members of his office, particularly to Fred Nelson, who was sort of my guide through these weeks and proved a wonderful guide.

My thanks certainly go to the Attorney General and to the members of his office who helped me on research chores and were fastidious in drawing a line between what was appropriate for the Justice Department and what was appropriate for the nominee. And my thanks certainly extend to the attorney general of New Hampshire and to his office, which but for their competence would have been rendered dysfunctional by the efforts to construct a paper trail and a biography for me, which -- [laughter] -- did not seem as apparent on July 23d as it later seemed to be.

And, of course, if I could, I would thank the people who have supported me and shored me up and given me the spirit for the race that I have had to run these past 11 weeks, to my neighbors and to my friends both old and new.

And I stand here saying to you, or asking to you, how can I thank you? And I think everyone in this room knows that I cannot really. We can never recompense the people who do us good. What we can do, and what we try to do instead, is pass it on and to make the gifts and kindnesses that come to us a kind of human currency that goes on traveling.

And I think the most that I can say this afternoon is that that is what I will try to do. I will try to pass on what I have received. Most importantly, I will try to pass on the constitutional authority that I have received this afternoon. I will try to use it as best I can according to the light that God gives me. And in due course I will try to pass it to another in as vigorous condition as I have received it this afternoon, as it were, from Justice Brennan. I will try to preserve it. And I will try to transmit it -- I hope refreshed -- to another generation of the American republic which is the inheritance of us all.

The President. It is not because Mr. Justice Souter is from strict Yankee tradition in New Hampshire that the reception will be without a lot of largess in there. [Laughter] But I think we all know the circumstances. But I would like to ask the members of the Court and the Vice President and members of the Cabinet and members of the Judiciary Committee and other Members of Congress and then everybody else to join us just in a receiving line so we can all tell Justice Souter how happy we are. So, let's go. We'll meet you out here.

Note: The President spoke at 5 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Erin Rath, the daughter of Tom Rath, a friend of Justice Souter. Justice Souter referred to John H. Sununu, Chief of Staff to President Bush; Kenneth M. Duberstein, former Chief of Staff to President Reagan; Frederick McClure, Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs; C. Boyden Gray, Counsel to the President; Frederick D. Nelson, Associate Counsel to the President; Attorney General Dick Thornburgh; and John Arnold, New Hampshire attorney general.

George Bush, Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for David H. Souter as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives