Within Kennedy's Chambers

by Kathleen Reeder | 5/24/01 5:00am

On a chilly Monday morning I stood at the grand entrance of the United States Supreme Court. As the chatter of tourists on the expansive piazza filled the air, the Italian marble shimmered in the sunlight and a spray of clear fountains emitted a light mist. Guards stood outside the court, keeping solemn watch over America's highest judiciary. For a moment I marveled at the exterior of a building whose interior has known so much rich history. Then I strode past the throngs of tourists and was escorted into that grand monument to justice, the Supreme Court of the United States.

With a bit of tenacity and a good dose of luck, on May 14, 2001 I was able to meet privately in chambers with Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Few Americans ever tour the Supreme Court, fewer observe oral arguments and fewer still meet a Justice as part of a group. Somehow, I was lucky enough to become one of few allowed to meet with a Justice on an individual basis. The brief yet intense meeting that transpired was fascinating for a student of the courts and encouraging for a defender of justice. While I have always had faith in this highest part of the judicial branch, meeting with Kennedy served to reinforce that faith. Kennedy is a great intellect and a great defender of the Constitution.

Conversation with Kennedy was easy and relaxed. He fondly recalled his most recent trip to Dartmouth during the summer of 1999 when he walked his niece down the aisle for her wedding at Rollins Chapel. Dartmouth was a fine institution in a lovely setting, he effused. With a sly smile he also recounted his conversation with one Dartmouth student who did not know the Justice's identity. Asked what students did in isolated Hanover during the dead of winter, the student responded, "Ski, drink beer and study." Chuckling, Kennedy asked me, "Is it in that order?"

But our conversation also covered questions of a legal and philosophical nature. Because justices will not remark on opinions of the court, I was forced to sidestep direct questions regarding legal questions before the court. However, Kennedy was willing to answer questions about the practice of writing opinions and the difficulties inherent in that process. When asked what opinion had been most difficult for him to author, he paused for a moment. "Whatever opinion I am currently drafting," he responded. He likened the process to writing a term paper, recounting the numerous times he has stared at a blank sheet of legal paper and had no idea where to begin. The process of mentally organizing opinions and adequately explaining their legal reasoning is a challenge, but one for which he is always game. He also invoked another academic analogy, likening the beginning of each term at the Court to the first days of a new school year. Friends are reunited, energy is high and motivation to "really do it right this time" is at its peak. As he infused the conversation with strong insight and pithy commentary, Justice Kennedy expressed a true passion for what he does.

With our time running short, I was able to ask few of the questions I had prepared for Kennedy. Concentrated in one long-winded inquiry, I inquired if he often found cases in which his personal opinion conflicts with the authority of the Constitution. When that occurs, how does he reconcile the two? And in a more general sense, how does he develop his judicial philosophy?

Kennedy responded with the ease of a man who had asked himself these very questions and long settled on their answers. The most difficult opinions to author, he responded, are those in which Constitutional mandates conflict with personal values. These situations occur not infrequently, he admitted, and they merit special attention. However, there is a single guiding principle in such situations -- "You have to listen to the voice that guides you." He paused for a moment, then finished. "That is the voice of the law."

As our short meeting ended, I longed to stay and converse for hours with this great legal mind. What is the next major constitutional question that the Court will be facing? What did he make of the media's interpretation of the Supreme Court as related to the 2000 presidential election? Could he explain the Supreme Court's construction of a "right to privacy?" While the Justice had to hand down an opinion from the bench and could not stay to answer all my questions, I left our short meeting feeling exceedingly fortunate to have met him. His passion for the law, his enthusiasm and optimism about the Court, and his dedication to protecting the Constitution were inspiring and encouraging. The American people are blessed to have on their highest Court a man of such strong integrity, intellectual curiosity and genuine passion for the law.

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