Justice David Souter, who was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1990 by George H.W. Bush, has announced his intention to retire at the end of the current session in June. Although he was appointed by a Republican president, Justice Souter found that the weight of responsibility of a supreme court justice transcended partisan politics. Commensurate with the important stewardship he had accepted, he became a protector and defender of the constitution.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is battling pancreatic cancer and may soon leave the court as well. Both Souter and Ginsberg have been voices for rational interpretation of the law as it applies to environmental statutes. You need look no further than the infamous Rapanos Decision of 2006 which dealt a serious blow to the integrity of the Clean Water Act. George W. Bush appointee, Justice Antonin Scalia, an unabashed adherent to the philosophies of the radical right wing, wrote the opinion. From the decision:" The restriction of the waters of the United States to exclude channels containing merely intermittent or ephemeral flow also accords with the commonsense understanding of the term. In applying the definition to ephemeral streams, wet meadows, storm sewers and culverts, directional sheet flow during storm events, drain tiles, man-made drainage ditches, and dry arroyos in the middle of the desert, the Corps has stretched the term waters of the United States beyond parody."
This paragraph conveys a clear lack of understanding of natural systems and common sense. It is in stark contradiction to the letter and spirit of the Clean Water Act. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the dissenting opinion and was joined by Justices Souter, Bryer and Ginsburg. In the dissent, Justice Stevens wrote: "In my view, the proper analysis is straightforward. The Army Corps has determined that wetlands adjacent to tributaries of traditionally navigable waters preserve the quality of our Nation's waters by, among other things, providing habitat for aquatic animals, keeping excessive sediment and toxic pollutants out of adjacent waters, and reducing downstream flooding by absorbing water at times of high flow." Simple, elegant and rational.
President Obama now has the opportunity to appoint a new supreme court justice to replace Justice Souter. Based on the new administration's many other actions in the first 101 days, I am confident that the President will find a suitable, well-qualified candidate to fill this important seat and preserve the reservoir of rationality which remains on the court. Had the election gone the other way, had John McCain continued to promote the far right ideology of his predecessor as he promised to do, we would be looking at a much more bleak alternative.
George W. Bush loaded the court with some of the most far right ideologues with which the court has ever been burdened. For the sake of our country and our system of government I hope President Obama will have more opportunities to restore balance and common sense to our last line of defense against those who would break the laws protecting our health, safety and environment.