Kennedy talks poverty, rights

He may be the swing vote on the U.S. Supreme Court, but Anthony Kennedy said calling it the “Kennedy Court” might motivate his colleagues to rebel.

“If you keep saying that, the decisions will be 8-1,” Kennedy joked after delivering a lecture at the Yale Law School. His speech, according to attendees, mostly avoided talk about the High Court, its decisions and its internal politics. Instead, he spoke about world poverty, the power of individual rights and how separation of powers and checks and balances are not one and the same.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy leaves the Law School on Thursday after a speech that touched on world poverty.
Tyler Hill
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy leaves the Law School on Thursday after a speech that touched on world poverty.

At Kennedy’s request, the lecture was closed to reporters.

Since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, Supreme Court watchers have identified Kennedy as the crucial swing justice on a number of controversial issues facing the court. Kennedy, who has served on the court since 1988, was in the majority of all 24 5-4 decisions delivered by the court over the past year.

In his remarks Thursday, Kennedy spoke about issues more wide-ranging than the academic legal questions commonly asked of leading members of the bar. In his talk, delivered without the aid of a prepared text, Kennedy expressed a bold vision for change in the 21st century, attendees said.

Kennedy discussed foreign legal and political concerns, including the relationship between American law and international law; poverty and the rights of citizens in developing countries; and the legal impact of an increasingly unified Europe, attendees said.

In response to a question, Kennedy also discussed his vote with the majority in the 1989 case Texas v. Johnson, which held that flag burning was a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

Yale Law School professor Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, a noted constitutional scholar, said he was “dazzled” by what he called Kennedy’s “Lincolnian” quality.

“When was the last time you heard any American seriously talk about solving the crisis of poverty?” Amar said. “It wasn’t about the court at all; it was about the world.”

Emily Lechner ’08, one of the 20 students in Amar’s undergraduate class “Constitutional Law” to land a coveted seat in the Law School Auditorium, said she was impressed by the thought-provoking nature of Kennedy’s comments, though he seemed very intent on not talking about divisive issues regarding the Supreme Court.

An additional 100 students from Amar’s class were given tickets to watch the lecture via a live video feed in another room in the Law School.

Sharifa Love-Schnur ’09 said she was surprised by Kennedy’s views on many of the topics he addressed. She was particularly intrigued by what he had to say about the developing world, she said.

“He is known as and votes as a conservative judge, but he said several things in his lecture that were very liberal-minded,” Love-Schnur said. “I thought it was very interesting coming from this particular justice.”

Thomas Ginakakis ’09 came out of the speech with a perception of Kennedy as a “humble” and “thoughtful” jurist who was not positioning himself as the swing vote on the court. He said Kennedy told colorful stories and seemed unrestrained about saying where he stood on the big decisions decided under his tenure on the court.

“He gave his opinion about a lot of different cases, but I don’t think he was championing himself as the leader of the court,” Ginakakis said, adding that Kennedy spoke on INS v. Chadha as an example of how even a Kenyan can bring light to values dear to the U.S. Constitution.

The speech was part of a “Global Constitutionalism” seminar with top jurists from across the world. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, as well as the former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, the top justice in New Zealand and the chief justice of the highest Hong Kong Court of Appeals, attended Kennedy’s speech — and follow-up festivities and private panels — at the Sterling Law Building and Woolsey Hall.

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