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Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter ’61 will deliver the keynote address at this year’s Commencement on May 27, the University announced yesterday.
Souter, a Rhodes Scholar and 1966 graduate of Harvard Law School, stepped down from the high court in June after nearly two decades of service.
In a statement, University President Drew G. Faust praised the former Lowell House resident’s independence and selflessness on the court.
"The dedication, humility, and commitment to learning with which he has pursued his calling should be an inspiration to any young man or woman contemplating a career in public service," Faust said.
The choice of Souter reflects Faust’s longtime commitment to promoting public service among members of the Harvard community since she ascended the presidency.
While the economic climate has hindered the University’s ability to finance large-scale public service programs, Faust’s recent efforts have been focused on promoting student projects and other opportunities in public service.
In October, Faust announced an initiative supporting students volunteering at the Greater Boston Food Bank, and the Harvard Kennedy School has been working with the White House to improve graduates’ job prospects in Washington.
Though the program has since been suspended, the Law School launched an initiative in 2008 to waive the third year of tuition for students who committed to five years of work in the public service sector.
Noah R. Feldman ’92, a Law School professor who clerked for Souter on the Supreme Court in 1998, also praised Souter’s commitment to public service yesterday, calling him the "the closest thing to a selfless public servant we’ve seen."
"He is a model of what a devoted public servant is in an era that has very few examples of that," Feldman said. "He threw himself into his job and worked 70 hours a week—not because he was a workaholic, but because that’s what his conscience told him he needed to do in order to do his job well."
Law School professor Laurence H. Tribe ’62 added that Souter’s Court opinions are well respected in the legal community.
"As a scholar, I always found his contributions to the law admirable, and his manifest concern for the plight of the most vulnerable of our citizens made his a beacon worth following," Tribe wrote in an e-mail. "I’m sure his reflections will prove enlightening at a time of national soul-searching and peril."
Appointed in 1990 by President George H. W. Bush, Souter came to be regarded as a moderate liberal during his 19-year tenure on the federal bench. By the middle of his term, Souter frequently voted with liberals on issues including the death penalty, worker rights, and limits on abortion restrictions.
But according to Feldman, it was not Souter who changed, but the nature of conservatism in the United States.
"It’s not obvious that he changed at all," Feldman said. "The world changed around him—and conservatism changed around him."
Before joining the Supreme Court, Souter served on the New Hampshire Supreme Court and as an Associate Attorney General in the state. He was briefly on the U.S. Court of Appeals before being appointed to the nation’s highest court.
According to media reports when he stepped down, Souter never felt completely comfortable in Washington. He had always preferred his farm in New Hampshire, and his retirement came as a welcome relief from a city from which he had largely grown distant.
Souter—who was replaced on the court by Sonia M. Sotomayor—said at a Constitution Day event last September that he planned to undertake a variety of part-time jobs, such as returning to the First Circuit in Boston, where he spent just one day hearing cases before starting his tenure at the Supreme Court.
Souter follows in a long line of distinguished commencement day speakers that most recently have included Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, author J.K. Rowling, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: February 25, 2010
Due to an editing error, an original version of the Feb. 9 news article "David H. Souter To Deliver Address at Harvard's 2010 Commencement" stated that former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter ’61 retired to his family farmhouse in Weare, N.H. after stepping down from the high court in June. In fact, though Souter was known to frequently return to Weare during his tenure on the court, upon retirement he bought a house in nearby Hopkinton, where he now lives, according to the New York Times.
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