Guest blog: Reflections on Justice Anthony Kennedy

Professor Justin Walker, former clerk for Justice Kennedy, shares what he admires about the retiring justice.
Guest blog: Reflections on Justice Anthony Kennedy

My colleague Professor Justin Walker clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy from 2011-2012, and, in my time as Dean and getting to know Justin, it is clear that the Justice remains a major influence on him — not just for his intelligence and ability, but for the values he embodies. As a result, I was delighted that Justin agreed to offer some reflections on Justice Kennedy, the man. I am pleased to share this revealing look at what made Justice Kennedy such a special member of the Court.


Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justin Walker. Walker clerked for Justice Kennedy from 2011-2012.

On the Supreme Court of the United States, the center of gravity shifts with time. The pendulum swings back and forth. The cycle spins on.

But men like Justice Anthony Kennedy don’t just come and go. He symbolized something fundamental to our nation’s great experiment with democracy. Something precious. Something that is vanishing.

That something is civility. Sure, he took tough stands. But he never met venom with venom. When possible, he gave his critics the benefit of the doubt. The Chief means well, he would say. Nino is just being Nino.

As we turn the judiciary into another tribal battlefield, this approach — to life and to the law — is at risk. And that’s why I do not look forward to the coming fight to replace Justice Kennedy. The rhetoric and viciousness will be unprecedented because the stakes are unprecedented. And lost in the middle will be the civility that Justice Kennedy brought to every aspect of a career spent championing the better angels of our nature.

This is not to say I agree with every opinion Justice Kennedy wrote. But I love Justice Kennedy. I loved working for him. I loved learning from him. I loved his intellectual curiosity. I loved his devotion to his adoring children and wife of 55 years. And I loved his life-long love affair with the law.

A few stories that came to mind when I heard the news that he was leaving:

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About midway through my year clerking for Justice Kennedy, I arrived at 7 in the morning to deliver some bad news. At his request, I had been driving his car with my wife (long story). It had been clipped by a taxi. The damage to the car was not major. But I worried the damage to my reputation would be harder to fix. I’d dreamed for years of clerking on the Supreme Court. Now was I going to be known forever by the Justice as “that clerk who wrecked my car”?

I should have known better. Don’t worry about it, he said with a smile. It’s just a car. That’s what insurance is for. He was more concerned about my worrying than he was about the car.

***

At the end of that term, Justice Kennedy dissented in a major case, and he knew I’d want to see his dissent from the bench firsthand. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. I kept helping him with his statement’s final edits until long after all the clerks’ seats were taken. That’s when I arrived in the courtroom and saw the seat he’d reserved for me — in his family box, next to Mrs. Kennedy.

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I once heard an unverified story from previous clerks about how Justice Kennedy created a reading list partly in response to the Arab Spring. The long list was a primer on freedom. And its audience was anyone who wanted to learn more about individual liberty, the rule of law and the values that make a democracy endure. The reading list is now online, intended as a guide for young people on freedom and democracy.  

Although the list’s origins may have had nothing to do with the Arab Spring, I like to imagine Justice Kennedy reading about a young fruit seller in Tunisia, who was marching in the streets, opposing autocracy and looking to build a better world. And what does that fruit seller need? Among other things, a reading list! 

If that’s what Justice Kennedy thought, his insight was right. But more than that, it was exceptionally idealistic. How beautiful that after three decades in our cynical capital, and in an era of shouting pundits and shock-talk DJs, Justice Kennedy thought part of the answer to global crises should be found in the words of Shakespeare, Jefferson, and Lincoln — as well as dozens more thinkers, and a few of his favorite movies (including Legally Blonde).  

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At the end of the musical Man of La Mancha, on his deathbed, Don Quixote dies while reimagining that he is a knight errand fighting for virtue and justice. But in the original novel, it’s Quixote’s realization that he isn’t a knight that kills him. It breaks his heart.  

Justice Kennedy never tilted after windmills.  And his calling — the law, in all its complex majesty — was different than Quixote’s. But he was like the aspiring knight in this way: If Justice Kennedy had not been able to fulfill his calling, it would have broken his heart.  

It’s fortunate for him that he spent his life in the service of that most noble of callings.

And for those of us lucky to work for him and learn from him, it’s fortunate for us as well. 

I hope Justice Kennedy is looking forward to this next chapter of his life. I know he will bring to it the same civility and idealism he brought to each one that preceded it.