Justice Anthony M. Kennedy

I depart today from my normal column subject, educational innovations, to share some personal thoughts about Justice Kennedy.  Although it was not advertised during my recruitment for the McGeorge deanship, one of the greatest and most undeserved perks of being the dean at McGeorge is the opportunity to work with and get to know Justice Kennedy. I write to share a bit of the more personal side of the man.

I will leave it to others to address Justice Kennedy’s legacy as a Supreme Court justice. I am not a Constitutional law scholar, and I have no desire to confirm my lack of expertise by trying to pretend to be one. My favorite professional tributes so far are this legal analysis by his former law clerk, Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf, and this tribute that gracefully links Justice Kennedy’s 40+ years as a law teacher and his storied career as a jurist authored by UCLA Law Professor Richard M. Re. I also enjoyed this more personal tribute by Notre Dame Law Professor Jeffrey Pojanowski and this tribute by Dr. Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, who, since 1993, has been Justice Kennedy’s co-teacher in McGeorge’s study abroad program at the University of Salzburg. (Dr. Douglas-Scott herself is a rock star law professor in England. Check out Dr. Douglas-Scott’s bio.) Justice Kennedy also has been celebrated for his civility and willingness to work hard.

Everyone else having done the hard intellectual work, I get to just tell four Justice Kennedy stories that, together, capture what a special man Justice Kennedy is.

Story 1. Last summer, I had the opportunity to catch a class session taught by Justice Kennedy as part of McGeorge’s Study Abroad Program at the University of Salzburg.  As is always the case with Justice Kennedy when he speaks, he taught entirely without looking at his notes.  (I have noticed that, when he speaks, he often has a set of handwritten notes which he relegates to his coat pocket before he starts speaking.) He was a wonderful classroom teacher (and, as many of you know, I am passionate about excellence in law teaching).  A particular moment stands out. He called on a student, and as many of us do when we teach, he asked her, “What would you argue if you were the lawyer in this case?”  The student articulated her argument. Justice Kennedy replied, “That was not the argument I was looking for.”  The class held its collective breath, as the student no doubt searched her mind for another answer. Then, the Justice added enthusiastically, “It’s better!” His humility and sincere delight in student success were evident throughout the class session, and those qualities are two common characteristics of the 26 law professors my co-authors and I studied for What the Best Law Teachers Do.

Story 2. On multiple occasions, Justice Kennedy has told people that I am his “boss.” (I, of course, cannot imagine a more absurd title.) In addition, on two occasions, in meetings that included the president of my university, Justice Kennedy credited me with a summer internship idea that, at best for me, was 95% his idea and 5% mine. (In both instances, given his stature, I was not going to start arguing with him publicly.)

Story 3. As my wife and I were saying goodbye to Justice Kennedy and his wife, Mary, in Salzburg last summer, Justice Kennedy said, with his typical kindness, “Mike, I think you will be great for McGeorge, and Stacey, I think you will be great for Sacramento.”  He was right about my wife, and, while she has not lorded it over me, I suspect it meant that he liked her more. Regardless, his graciousness touched us both.

Story 4.  This spring, I heard two Justice Kennedy speeches, his remarks to the Sacramento County Bar Association (SCBA) on the occasion of the SCBA’s 100th Anniversary celebration and a video presentation at a dinner honoring the accomplishments of a retiring justice of the 3rd District of the California Courts of Appeal, Justice George Nicholson. What both sets of remarks had in common was his evident and enormous connection to the Sacramento community and bar, his genuine connection to people on a very personal level, his willingness to go out of his way for others, and his brilliance as a public speaker.  It was also telling that so many of us felt a personal connection to the man.

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So, what do I take from these four stories? Justice Kennedy is a humble man (Stories 1 and 2), great law teacher (Story 1), a supportive, kind, and generous person (Stories 2, 3, and 4), and a good friend (Stories 2, 3, and 4).

I have been asked what I see Justice Kennedy doing next. I have no doubt he will spend more time with his family. However, to me, Justice Kennedy is the legal education equivalent of LeBron James (an iconic figure, someone everyone would like to have on her or his team, a guy who makes those around him better, and a free agent this summer). I therefore will be recruiting him to continue to teach at McGeorge, ideally even more frequently than he has in the last few years.