Retired Souter on bench in lower court

BOSTON — Justice David Souter ever so politely interrupts an attorney making a complicated legal argument.

"May I ask you a question?" Souter asks. "I will tell you, you do not have to answer it as far as I'm concerned."

Then Souter cuts to the chase, stinging the lawyer with an ethical question: "Do you believe you have a good faith basis in law to make that argument?"

For Souter, retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court last June has not meant retirement from the bench.

At the age of 70, he is unwilling to hang up his robe and is hearing cases one or two days a month for the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, which handles federal appeals for Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

"It was an opportunity to stay involved with the law at a very high level, and he's enjoying it immensely," said former U.S. Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, a longtime friend of Souter's who was a key player in his nomination to the Supreme Court.

For those who observed Souter during his 19 years on the Supreme Court, the demeanor is the same — polite, formal and sharp.

"He's incredibly bright and insightful," said New Hampshire attorney Sven Wiberg, the lawyer who was asked to defend his argument to Souter. "He cuts right to the heart of things."

Souter is known for being intensely private and declined a request to be interviewed.

By retiring at age 69, he became one of the youngest judges to leave the bench. Friends say he never enjoyed Washington — he once said he had "the world's best job in the world's worst city."

So they are not surprised by his decision to return to the 1st Circuit court, where he had served just one day before his nomination.

"It's something he always told us he was going to do," said Norman Stahl, a senior judge on the court who has been friends with Souter for 40 years.