I may not live to see Justice Souter’s Papers

April 22nd, 2015

In 2009 when Justice Souter retired, the Blog of the Legal Times reported that his papers would be released in 50 years. My buddy Mike Sacks and I made a pact to visit the New Hampshire Historical Society in 2059. In that year, god willing, I will be 75, which is Justice Souter’s age today.

It turns out the papers won’t be available in 2059, or 2060, or even 2064. We don’t know when they will be available, because Justice Souter instructed the New Hampshire Historical Society to release them 50 years after his death. Thanks to the inquisitiveness of Gerard Magliocca, and the reporting of Tony Mauro, we now know that Souter threatened to incinerate his papers if they were not embargoed for half a century after his death.

Justice Souter told Gerard:

“I have given such papers as I’ve retained to the New Hampshire Historical Society, to be opened for inspection after the 50th anniversary of my death. By that time, they will be of interest only to the historians taking the long view.”

“As I’ve retained” suggests there are other papers that are not retained–in other words, destroyed.

Tony reported that the Executive Director of the Historical Society said Souter was “emphatic” about the embargo.

Bill Veillette, the historical society’s executive director in 2009, also confirmed on Wednesday that Souter’s wish all along was for release of his papers 50 years after his death, not his retirement.

“He was very emphatic about it,” Veillette recalled. “He told me, ‘I’ve got an incinerator outside my house, and either you agree to 50 years after my death, or they go into the incinerator.’” Since many papers are donated by families decades or centuries after a notable person’s death, Veillette said Souter’s 50-year delay seemed relatively brief. Veillette is now the executive director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Massachusetts.

If Justice Souter lives to be Justice Stevens’s current age, then the papers will not be released until 2085. I will be 101 in that year. If I’m even still around, there is a distinct possibility that I will be one of the few remaining lawyers who knew of Justice Souter as an active Justice. What a travesty. I hate to break it to Justice Souter, but by the time 2085 comes along, I don’t think any historians will care much about him, or his role on the Court. And that’s exactly the way he wants it.