During his confirmation process in 1988, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “It would be highly improper for a judge to allow his or her personal or religious views to enter into a decision respecting a constitutional matter.” He lived and judged by those words throughout his thirty years on the Supreme Court up until July 31st, his last day on the bench. While he is certainly not the first to retire from the Supreme Court, he may be the most significant judge to do so, especially in today’s time of turbulent politics and division within the government.
The root of Kennedy’s legacy lies in his critically decisive votes on numerous landmark cases. Rather than let his political identification dictate how he voted, Kennedy became respected for deciding cases separate from his personal views. He has given conservatives and liberals reasons to applaud his avoidance of political partisanship. He remained conservative on issues of gun control, voting rights and corporate America — most notably in the controversial Citizens United vs. FEC, which gave corporations the right to unlimited campaign contributions.
However, when Kennedy strayed from his conservative roots and advanced the rights of women, LGBT, and minorities, he altered American society and the course of American history. In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the first opportunity for the newly conservative Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade, Kennedy voted to uphold abortion rights. Kennedy has even left his mark on UT: in 2016, he wrote the 4-3 decision that upheld UT’s admissions system for minority students.
What Kennedy will be most remembered for, more than upholding the rights of women and minorities, is his contribution to the LGBTQ community. He voted against laws that discriminate against same-sex couples. In 2013, he wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Windsor, which successfully struck down the restriction of “marriage” to opposite-sex couples as unconstitutional. However, Kennedy’s role as the swing vote in the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case, a case that made same-sex marriage legal nationwide in 2015, is his most important stamp on history.
Despite these times of partisanship, when we usually expect Supreme Court Justices to decide cases based on their party affiliation, Kennedy has shown over the course of three decades what can be achieved when one votes with their head, not just their heart. The period following his retirement announcement was filled with fear on the left, and opportunistic joy on the right. President Trump now has a second chance to cement his own legacy by filling yet another vacant Supreme Court seat.
The transition from a middleman like Kennedy to a hard-line conservative like Trump’s nominee Brett Kavanaugh will be difficult because there is a possibility that many of Kennedy’s decisions are in danger of being overturned. Considering the significance of the upcoming midterm elections, as the Democrats have a genuine opportunity to take over the majority in the Senate and could reject Trump’s nominee, Kennedy’s retirement especially complicates the confirmation process.
Anthony Kennedy’s most important lesson to present and future American politicians is to put human dignity and constitutional rights first, above party identification and misguided information. The narrative of typical government politics, especially within the Supreme Court, needs to be revised. The act of voting strictly along party lines, instead of for what the American people need, is an outdated practice.
Kennedy’s legacy will forever be defined by how he established himself as a crucial swing voter. But he should also be recognized for opening the doors to more politicians bridging the gap between parties and making decisions that advance American society forward with less emphasis on partisan lines.
Kennedy’s nonpartisan constitutional decisions starkly separated him from his colleagues and successor. The effect of his swing vote in and of itself illustrated the power and importance of our judicial body. His retirement is a momentous but eye-opening event that shows how America, in a time of extreme political divisiveness and upheaval, has lost one of the last symbols of partisan relativism.