Thank You, Justice Kennedy
Justice Kennedy is in the news due to his recent retirement announcement. Once again, many of those speaking or writing about him will mischaracterize his jurisprudence. To most, his voting patterns seem erratic and unpredictable. Yet, after all these decades, more than anyone else on the Court, Justice Kennedy has been uber-consistent and reliable. You would think that more people would better understand him, although a few seem to get it, as evidenced in the titles of some books regarding his jurisprudence. See, here, here, and here.
I became familiar with Justice Kennedy, like many law students, during the first few weeks of Constitutional Law. My professor introduced him to us by saying, “now for all of you libertarians and freedom lovers in the room, you are going to love Justice Kennedy,” and love him I did. His votes were on point with how I would have personally sided on each issue. More than that though, his words swept me up and for the time it took to read his opinion(s), I felt a sense of hope and optimism in the overall good of people. He made me love our Constitution, giving me a feeling that the structure and order it provided existed in perfect harmony, so as to preserve as much freedom as possible.
Many become confused over Justice Kennedy’s voting patterns; one minute he is authoring opinions that make him appear reliably conservative, and the next minute he is penning prose that would make most conservative voters cringe. I must admit, I too cringed when I first read the language he used in Obergefell v. Hodges: what he referred to as “Principles”. While I agreed with his vote, I was confused by his method of Constitutional Law and wondered if I had inadvertently wandered into a philosophy class. While I still have reservations about his methods, I can at least appreciate that to Justice Kennedy there is a point to the Constitution. There are, of course, the words and their dictionary definitions (where most conservatives begin and end), but there is also meaning behind the words chosen, the purpose of crafting the whole document in the first place. To Justice Kennedy, it’s not that the Constitution is ‘alive,’ as many on the left like to view it-subject to modern interpretation, with an updated dictionary. Rather, it is more like the original words and structure point to the Founders hope in penning it. Justice Kennedy simply showed us the fine tension that must exist between federal and state, and between state and person, to ensure that enough space exists in the in-between for breathing, which is a necessary requirement for life, and liberty.
It is ironic, that so many conservatives now feel excitement about the chance to get a true Constitutionalist onto the bench in his stead. Justice Kennedy is nothing but a Constitutionalist. It is also interesting that his votes are tracked, as if the Court has sportscasters, always trying to figure out his next move. I can hear them now saying, “this season he is batting conservative, with only two fly balls out in Left-field.” I can’t imagine how frustrating it has been to be known as some sort of watered-down, unreliable conservative, whose only purpose on the Court is to be persuaded to swing one way or the other. As it is, no one seems to know how to mention his name without also calling him the “swing vote.” See here and here, for a few recent examples.
History should not remember Justice Kennedy as a swing voter, a moderate, or a centrist. All of those descriptions fail to see him for what he has been, a major disappointment. He spent his career disappointing some side of the aisle every day. What I wouldn’t give to have another disappointment of a jurist put on the Court to take his place! We need jurists who have no cause, but the cause of liberty, as defined by the Constitution. Jurists whose personal beliefs and opinions are left at home while they handle the one piece of paper that we must all share. Justice Kennedy showed me that the structure of the Constitution whispers its function. He heard the whispers and shared them with us, and for that, I am grateful. As for the future appointment to the Court, all we can hope for are a few Congress men and women who will follow Justice Kennedy’s example, and be disappointments.