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For the five years since the retirement of Sandra Day O’Connor from the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy—a 1961 graduate of Harvard Law School—has wielded what many consider the most important vote on the Court.
Kennedy’s ballot has often been the least predictable, often deciding whether the Court will decide conservatively or liberally.
“He is the critical swing vote on many constitutional matters,” said David W. Adamany ’58, a law professor and former president of Temple University who was also a Law School classmate of Kennedy’s.
But in his time at Harvard, there were few hints that Kennedy would one day be the critical vote on the highest court in the nation. Despite graduating cum laude from the Law School, classmates describe Kennedy during that time as a friendly, regular student.
FRIEND TO MANY
In law school, friends could always spot Kennedy in a crowd by looking for his most distinctive feature: a green sweater, which he reportedly wore every day.
“Whether the green sweater ever got sent to the cleaners, I’ll never know,” says University of Virginia Professor Robert M. O’Neil ’56, recalling the look of Kennedy, whom he sat next to in constitutional law class at the Law School.
Friends said the thoughtfulness and humility that characterized Kennedy as a student have continued throughout his career on the bench.
“He was a very conscientious student,” O’Neil says. “He was easy to like and always was around friends.”
“Even in his exalted status, Kennedy has always been modest and straightforward,” he adds.
From his early years, law school seemed like an inevitability for Kennedy, whose father was an influential lawyer in Sacramento.
“There was really, really no choice. My dad was an attorney.” Kennedy said in a 2005 interview with the Academy of Achievement. “I’d say, ‘Oh, I have a geometry test.’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you whatever you need to know.’ So, I probably saw 10 trials before I was out of high school.”
Although Kennedy did not like school when he was younger, he grew to like it, earning admission into Stanford University and spending his final year of his undergraduate education at the London School of Economics before attending Harvard.
Those who know Kennedy stressed that today he defies the stereotype of a stuffy old judge.
“He’s by no means a dull or severe personality—very lively personality with a great sense of humor,” Adamany says. He notes that Kennedy hosted an event at the Law School’s 50th reunion for the Class of 1961 this past April, appearing alongside fellow Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who graduated from the Law School in 1986.
THE SWING VOTE
After serving as a professor at McGeorge School of Law of the University of the Pacific, Kennedy was appointed to the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1975. In 1988, Ronald Reagan nominated Kennedy for the Supreme Court, after his first two nominees failed to gain Senate approval.
In recent years, Kennedy has become the court’s swing vote, and determining the outcome in crucial 5-4 decisions has made him both an hero to some causes and a lightning rod for criticism.
Adamany cites two important cases in which Kennedy has served as the deciding vote on the Supreme Court decision.
In Lawrence v. Texas, Kennedy sided with the court’s liberals in striking down sodomy laws that particularly targeted homosexuals.
“He affirmed for the first time that gays and lesbians are part of the American community and should be treated with dignity,” Adamany says of the decision. “As he read the opinion there were muffled sounds in the courtroom—it was of gay and lesbian lawyers who had come to hear the decision, weeping.”
More often than not, however, Kennedy has sided with the more conservative side of the Court, as exhibited in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Elections Committee. The decision in that case struck down laws preventing corporations from spending corporate money on political campaigns.
Kennedy has accumulated criticisms for his decisions, notably from Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic, who claims that Kennedy uses instinct in place of rigorous analysis.
But Jan C. Greenburg, author of a bestselling book on the Supreme Court, said that critiques of Kennedy are most often based off of his refusal to adhere strictly to conservative values and not a thorough legal analysis of his decisions.
Regardless of the varying evaluations of Kennedy’s legal career, O’Neil called him an “unsung hero,” emphasizing that he treasures his Harvard Law School connection. And for Kennedy, after all these years of being involved in the law, he still has a passion for it.
“I have great admiration for the system,” Kennedy said in a 2009 interview with C-SPAN. “The system works.”
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