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Originally published Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Justice Souter longs for rural hideaway

David Souter, who never liked Washington, D.C, looks forward to retiring this year to a simple life in his beloved New Hampshire.

The Washington Post

WEARE, N.H. — When he joined the bench of the nation's highest court, David Souter packed his belongings into a U-Haul and drove down Interstate 95 from his boyhood home in Weare to a rented Washington apartment. But the Supreme Court justice never took to the federal city, and after 19 years, his things are in the same boxes.

"He never unpacked," said Thomas Rath, one of Souter's closest friends. "A few years ago, he said, 'I figured I'd take the pictures out of the boxes and hang them up, but I figured in a few years I'd be coming back to New Hampshire and I'd have to pack them back up, so I might as well leave them in the boxes.' "

At 69, Souter is giving up what he once called "the world's best job in the world's worst city" for life in Weare. The rural hamlet fascinates him so much that he has told neighbors he may write a history of the town.

When he departs this summer in his Volkswagen sedan — he dislikes flying and always drives himself to and from Washington — Souter will cross the Piscataquog River, drive past country stands selling maple syrup and fresh eggs, and turn down a narrow, unmarked dirt road.

At the dead end of Cilley Hill Road is home. The crooked, rusty mailbox and the metal horse-and-buggy sign on the red barn door bear the name Souter. The brown paint on the wooden colonial farmhouse is peeling away, the second-floor curtains are drawn, and the windows are sagging with age.

A rusted wheelbarrow sits out back, and a bird's nest rests atop a lantern on the shadowy bare-wood porch. The creaking, unkempt house looks haunted, and some people who passed by said they assumed it had been abandoned.

Souter once wrote in a letter to the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun that he was at peace at his farmhouse.

"The restoration comes not only from the landscape and air, though they play their significant part, but from the people," Souter wrote. "I feel a strong need to be in New Hampshire for as much of the summer as I can manage it."

The farmhouse made national news three years ago, when property-rights activists tried and failed to seize it by eminent domain to build a hotel. They were seeking revenge for Souter's vote in a 2005 ruling that a Connecticut city could take a group of older, waterfront homes for development.

A maverick justice

In 1990, President George H.W. Bush elevated Souter from obscurity to the Supreme Court, largely because Souter's old friend, Warren Rudman, then a U.S. senator, vouched for his conservatism. Souter had served two months as a federal judge and before that on the New Hampshire Supreme Court. In Washington, Souter showed his quirky independence in spurning the right.

Souter has famously shunned Washington's social scene and leads an unusually reclusive life for a public official. He dislikes schmoozing at cocktail parties, refuses media interviews and rarely poses for photographs.

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"Everything that the social scene in Washington stands for is not David," said Bill Glahn, a close friend. "Washington is just not his cup of tea."

Souter is well-liked, gentlemanly and funny, known for telling stories in his deep New England accent. But though he is friendly with many in Washington, he has few friends there. A lifelong bachelor with no surviving immediate family, Souter is close to retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and often joins their families at Thanksgiving.

Souter has been known to work 12-hour days and keep a daily diary. But he cares little for material goods. It has been joked that his black robe adds color to his attire.

Rather than dining out for lunch, he usually has yogurt and an apple at his desk. "And he eats the apple the old-fashioned New England way: He eats it right through the core," Rath said. "There is nothing left but the stem."

Rich but frugal

Souter is the court's wealthiest and perhaps most frugal justice. He arrived in 1990 with reported assets of $627,010, but thanks to a shrewd investment in a New England bank, he is worth $6 million to $30 million, according to his most recent financial disclosures. Yet he resides not in a glamorous Georgetown town house but in the same mundane apartment. One night in 2004, during a jog by himself around nearby Fort McNair, he was mugged.

Souter, an only child, moved to Weare with his banker father and homemaker mother when he was in the sixth grade.

A few years ago, Weare proposed naming its new middle school after Souter, but he wrote a letter respectfully declining the honor.

Souter enjoys mountain hikes and strolling through nearby Clough State Park. He is also a ferocious reader; friends said he is eager to finally organize his thousands of books into a library.

"He's given his whole life to public service, and I think it got harder and harder for him to go back to Washington the last couple of years," said Rath, whose daughter held the Bible at Souter's swearing-in. "This is where he belongs."

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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