Gerrad Ponti (ed.): Remembering the Suzuki Court


From Remembering the Suzuki Court

1. Brian Page, clerk in Suzuki’s third term 

One fall day of my clerkship I arrived, at request, at the Chief Justice’s home–to prepare, uselessly I always thought, for upcoming oral argument of a case. He rarely “prepared”; but, when he did, a revision of something seemed sure to come. He never prepared at these “preparations.” One arrived, something happened, one left.

The Chief, I was told, was out back, gardening, which at the moment consisted of Suzuki on his knees, pulling out shafts of a tall weed like plant with delusive hope of becoming a tree. I announced myself, wondering if I was expected to contribute to this enterprise.

“Ah, Brian. I am pulling.”

Oh oh. He’s in his transplanted immigrant mode, victim of the world force beyond the control of all.

“Yes, Chief. I see.”

“Pulling weed-like growth with irritatingly beautiful purple flowers in spring. I pull these out every year.”

“Every year?”


“They reseed that fast?”


“They come back that fast?”

“Come back? They never leave! Devious users of my plan.”

Yes, this is why I am here. To see, hear this. So:

“Plan? You’re weeding.”

“Grows very high, very fast. Pop! Big purple flowers so beautiful! We must let them be! Roots strangle humbler plants. Soon nothing but big, beautiful purple flowers. No one remembers the prior residents.

“There. Done.”

He stands up.

“But you’ve left some of the roots.”

“I must.”

“It will grow back.”

“Unless another appears.”

“You mean to plant something else?”

“I am no plant!”


“Weed like growth didn’t ask me to be here. Plant must come.”

“It’s your backyard.”

“Illusion! I am only visitor.”

“Chief, if you leave the roots it will surely return.”

“Roots till the soil. Easier for seed to take hold.”

“You pull the roots, Chief. You are the real tiller.”

“You understand!”

For this I fought for notice at Berkeley Law. My future rumbles dissatisfaction: “You were a clerk of Suzuki? Next!” Still:

“Easier for what seed?”

“Good question.”

This last grumbled. He is teaching himself a lesson, one requiring an audience. As though making a point is a bad thing, he makes one circumspectly, hoping I will somehow figure it all out, hoping I will somehow make a difference.

“It is unlikely a seed will drop, Chief.”

“I know. So beautiful purple consumes mysterious unknown resource, grows big every year. Which means I’m here every year.”

Time for author’s message. This must have something to do with vouchers [West v Louisiana oral argument was pending]. His engine of success.

“Strange. Plant slow, evolves slowly. I evolving quickly. So I keep pulling out the slow one, hoping something will happen. I evolve so quickly soon I will no longer be here. Plant will always be here.”

“A bleak legacy, Chief.”

“Seed will come. Important texts say so. Seed will come. Meanwhile, I have lovely purple flowers each Spring!”

He claps his hands to shake the dirt off.

“Let’s eat so you can go home.”


From Remembering the Suzuki Court

2. Brian Page, clerk in Suzuki’s third term 

Ben went back to his birth state of Illinois after his “spontaneous retirement.” He settled in a farming town, in a once been small farm whose acreage had lay fallow for many years, hard, bumpy land not quite worth the swallowing by corporate entities. The associated town survived, nearby farms now corporate leases plus some individually owned perpetual debt, the environs inadequate for economies of scale. Ben bought a hold out farm that sadly went under. He kept it that way, of course: weeds and prairie grass for view.

Here he worked on Historical unpleasantness, a collection of interpretative vignettes, some of which were published in his life. “I was Chief Justice. Maybe someday I will say something, so they take present nonsense.” And his Zen Journal–but I knew nothing of that.

Firmly entrenched in Manhattan law practice–too firmly, Ben would say–I visited yearly, grateful I wasn’t turned away. Many past clerks came, but he never spoke of them, not even those of my year. Once, having finished lunch, we went out back to watch the weeds campaign for status as prairie grass, moving to show us the ways of breeze. There they were. A clump of ugly green plants, about three feet tall, sprouting vivid purple flowers, the very same as in his D.C. backyard.

“Ben–they have followed you!”

“Struggle never ends.”

I pause. “Ben, I know I am slow–I was your clerk after all…”

A growl.

“…but it cannot be that this plant is indigenous to both places.”

“Struggle requires preparation.”

“You put those weeds in your D.C. backyard. Every year. After pulling them out.”

“Ah. I chose well. You are slow. Nothing grows that fast!”

“You put them there, let them bloom….”

“Irritating dazzle of purple….”

“…then you tore them out, waiting, then planted them again.”

He stands still, looking out at the moving prairie grass/weeds. Then his arms flurry: “Something must substitute when reality does not come!”

Reality does not come: the wild seed, dropped without intention. Not one of numerous seeds flung about; a rare seed rarely dropped, dropped by no hand. A sutra seed. A seed so rare we wouldn’t know what to do if it came forth. Perhaps, Benjamin Suzuki, there is–there need be–no seed. Perhaps it is the transplanting, the removal, the waiting irrespective of hope, then, when nought comes, the transplanting, emblem for what should come but never does; perhaps it is this foolish cycle which is the marvel awaiting, awaiting for us to notice what we do. No, you do–not I. Not I, Benjamin. Still, this million dollar man before you did listen, fresh out of Berkeley joust, so important walking the Court steps which remain after I pass. I, a transplant which must be uprooted, awaiting the seed which never comes.

He turns toward me: “I know. Was I ever Chief Justice? I have to ask Elizabeth sometimes.”

I have no words. He pulls up two lawn chairs, facing them towards the unkempt acreage of grass.

“Time to watch movement.”

We sit long, saying nothing, sounds and indistinct shapes of color forming sense lost upon the first human encounter, where words inundate all possibility, leaving only the failed words of conversation to construct an abode. But, in this silence, in this movement which never ends nor recedes, in this companionship without talk to make you out of I, no transplanting is necessary. You’ve done it, Ben. Sutra seed whose bloom is as vast as vision. Here, the dangerous mircale of transmission: what I took did you give? Pull me out of this ground. Sell me to the great corporation for rooting in plush concrete where important outcomes abound. I will find a way to dazzle purple, not the real thing, no, never the real thing, but emblem for what might be.

All along it was the purple weed you loved.


*         *         *

You’re gone now. With Elizabeth I view the unkempt prairie a final time. Purple flowers have broken out of their plot, meandering toward the back door, trailing the house’s back.

“He kept it up until the stroke. Uprooting, waiting, transplanting. Each year. I asked him if I should hire someone to do it. He said that would be crazy. Those last three years, sometimes he would look out back. ‘Purple thinks it has won,’ he would say, ‘Let it have its pay.’”

Purple flowers needing no human eye. But purple nonetheless. Purple, ready for use–or not. That is literature. That is the writing in the dark of unknown value. That, Ben, is what you finally left us.

Back inside, Elizabeth opens his desk: “What shall I do with this?”

His Zen Journal, as rambling as the purple weed. Too long grown because never uprooted. His pay. But human flowers never wilt. Ask why they’re here and you miss the possibilities of present use.

That fall next I assumed a judgeship in New York county court. I had made enough money. Time to transplant irritatingly purple flower. I, emblem for what did not come.


From Remembering the Suzuki Court

3. Gerrard Ponti, clerk in Cabrales’ fifth term 

The Justice took me south, drove me through southwestern Texas into New Mexico, legal briefs in trunk, days in old hotels, never that fuzzy class called motel, hotels just this side of comfort, days with legal briefs pilled about Mexican food, this the locus of my jurisprudence, he said. Never mind Harvard Law. Desert towns were his education, men and women speaking Spanish, telling stories of lives with fiction a tool for clarity, speaking this time to audience of single man who ramifies into multitudes, unknown, concealed magician of ideas.

So he traveled with a clerk one month each summer, rejected certiorari petitions in tow: what would we have said if the Court had heard the petition? Studies in the caprice of justice, voices drowned so a few others may speak. Why invest so heavily in a few clerks? Because so much was invested in me.

And always church and mass. Sundays, and, when available, confessional. Once, in a small New Mexican town, he entered an old confessional, I sitting in a pew, wondering how such poverty could sustain such a glittering alter; then priest rush walks in directly to confessional, enters his side, confers with an Associate Justice. The priest emerged bemused, started at my presence, rushing off, a visitation from something. The Justice would call it an act of God if in the audience. Acts of God. Cabrales would say our lives are too familiar to recognize an Act of God. But an immigrant needs those acts, sees through others’ mundane. Immigrants, he said, found it hard to ignore God. Then, with a smile, of course, immigration is a matter of scale.

Where we traveled, not all immigrants were Hispanic. One small town’s sole hotel was owned by an Arab. We stayed and did our what if work, listening to the proprietor’s banter. Banter of Iraq. Heads rolling in Bagdad, death so persistent it must come from faith. So many heads only the hand of God could sever them all. The proprietor was wounded inside, no balm in ranting against America, his America, citizen some twenty years.

“We have chaos!” he barked at the Justice, “No one knows who is doing this!”

Anthony paused. Pau paused. He knew most Muslims declaimed terrorists as not of Islam. But the beheadings were too frequent to escape the net of Belief. Gently he said, “No. We know. All of us know.”

The proprietor’s eyes bulged. “Who,” he dared.

“The hand of divinity severs these heads.”

Silence. Not Islam. Divinity. Not nationalism. Divinity. Not the murderous hatred of humans. Divinity. Divinity: the fulcrum of hope.

Anthony reached into his shirt pocket, took out his small childhood wooden crucifix covered with decades of sweat and skin, placing it on the table, before all.

“I know,” he added.

A moment which might break. The proprietor looked at the cross, at the Justice. A burden retreated from his face: “Yes, you know.”

We traveled the next day.

From Remembering the Suzuki Court

4.  Theodore Taylor, mathematician at the University of Utah, friend of Benjamin Suzuki; shortly after Suzuki’s first term on the Court

Nonacs v Selton [declaring conscription violative of the 13th Amendment’s prohibition against involuntary servitude] seemed about to topple the Court, the Republican House fuming, seriously considering impeachment of half the Justices. Justice Scalia’s proposed Constitutional Amendment nullifying the decision would redirect the rancor, but that was yet to be. Benjamin wanted to get away. He came to visit. We trudged Zion National Park in high spring. At the middle Emerald pool he stared at its waterfall, just stared, seemingly twenty minutes or more, occasional fellow consumers passing, close, unaware they shared this landscape beyond man with the Betrayer, the Assassin of Liberty, the Diabolical Mind–and a host of other sobriquets rampaging through the media. Nothing had changed; nothing would in the foreseeable future. Yet hysteria over Nonacs continued to grow. Ben stared. Out of worry, I approached, asking what he saw.

Staring still, he replied, “The dissolution and confluence of history. The larger no different than its parts, just more destructive.”

I pointed to the pool at waterfall’s basin. “There is also calm below.”

“Destruction is creation”

“How often that slogan has been used for abomination, Ben.”

“I know. But the tool can’t be dropped. By anyone.”

No playful Japanese immigrant-who-is-not in his voice that day. Nor for many days thereafter. Ben had changed the game, and he was afraid. I think Scalia saved him. The Court majority forced Scalia into an honesty which ultimately insulated the Suzuki majority. If Scalia hadn’t been so honest in his Nonacs concurrence, if he had just dissented, prophesying destruction, I think the Court might have broken in its first move. I think Ben was sure of it.

[Archival note:  cf Nonacs v Selten:  Justice Scalia conurring in judgement;  Kendal Q. Binmore: A cacophony of silence: ground of the Triumvirate: 6. Gandhi’s failure, Suzuki’s hope, which uses this entry in its entirety.]
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