PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire—Retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter told a group of immigrants who he had just sworn in as U.S. citizens that they know more about the U.S. Constitution, “than most Americans know.” In a scathing critique of Americans’ civic knowledge, Souter quoted the presidential oath of office, saying, “All of us have an obligation to ‘preserve, protect and defend’ the Constitution.” But noting that less than half of Americans know key sections of the Constitution, Souter asked, “how can you protect something that you don’t even know exists?”
Souter, who retired from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009, made his remarks after swearing in 105 new citizens from countries including Brazil, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Sudan. He pointed out that to become a naturalized citizen it’s necessary to pass a test on the Constitution and the U.S. system of government. “You have had to do enough studying in preparation for your citizenship exam,” Souter said. “And it’s because you already know that, that I welcome you because you can be good examples to the native-born American citizens.”
The ceremony was held on Independence Day in Souter’s home state of New Hampshire on the grounds of the Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth, a collection of historic buildings, gardens and exhibits that are meant to bring American history to life. While tourists wandered nearby, eating hot dogs, drinking lemonade and being greeted by reenactors in colonial era costumes, Souter told the new citizens that he hopes they can be good examples to the rest of the country:
“Right now all of you are in a position to be effective defenders of the Constitution, and you’re in a better position than most citizens of the United States. And that’s why I am not being polite when I say that my hope is that you will set an example that other people will follow… The people of the United States need that example, they need the example that you can give, right now, from the moment you leave this ceremony.”
Souter, a Republican, was appointed by President George H.W. Bush, and became a liberal voice on the Supreme Court. Perhaps in a reference to some of the candidates who are campaigning in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s presidential primary, he urged the new citizens to, “keep your eye out for people who come along in public life who will try to limit … constitutional values.”
After Souter’s brief remarks a children’s chorus sang God Bless America and other patriotic songs. One of the new citizens then led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. When the ceremony was over the new citizens lined up to shake hands with Souter and other dignitaries, and then joined another line to apply for a U.S. passport.