From abortion to gay rights to campaign finance, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement Wednesday, was the voice of the U.S. Supreme Court in some of the most contentious issues of the time.
“The Constitution doesn’t belong to a bunch of judges and lawyers. It belongs to you,” Kennedy said on the What It Takes podcast in 2017.
What follow are selections of Kennedy’s own words in a high court career that spanned three decades.
Abortion rights: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” (Planned Parenthood of S.E. Pennsylvania v. Casey.)
Same-Sex marriage: “The nature of marriage is that, through its enduring bond, two persons can together find other freedoms, such as expression, intimacy, and spirituality. This is true for all persons, whatever their sexual orientation.” (Obergefell v. Hodges)
Campaign finance: Corporations, like individuals, do not have monolithic views. On certain topics corporations may possess valuable expertise, leaving them the best equipped to point out errors or fallacies in speech of all sorts, including the speech of candidates and elected officials….The fact that speakers may have influence over or access to elected officials does not mean that these officials are corrupt…The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.” (Citizens United v. FEC)
Prison conditions: As a consequence of their own actions, prisoners may be deprived of rights that are fundamental to liberty. Yet the law and the Constitution demand recognition of certain other rights. Prisoners retain the essence of human dignity inherent in all persons. Respect for that dignity animates the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. … A prison that deprives prisoners of basic sustenance, including adequate medical care, is incompatible with the concept of human dignity and has no place in civilized society. (Brown v. Plata)
Juvenile death penalty: The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed. If trained psychiatrists with the advantage of clinical testing and observation refrain, despite diagnostic expertise, from assessing any juvenile under 18 as having antisocial personality disorder, we conclude that States should refrain from asking jurors to issue a far graver condemnation–that a juvenile offender merits the death penalty.” (Roper v. Simmons)
Foreign law’s influence: “Not the least of the reasons we honor the Constitution, then, is because we know it to be our own. It does not lessen our fidelity to the Constitution or our pride in its origins to acknowledge that the express affirmation of certain fundamental rights by other nations and peoples simply underscores the centrality of those same rights within our own heritage of freedom. (Roper v. Simmons)
Habeas corpus and Guantanamo Bay: “The real risks, the real threats, of terrorist attacks are constant and not likely soon to abate. The ways to disrupt our life and laws are so many and unforeseen that the court should not attempt even some general catalogue of crises that might occur. Certain principles are apparent, however. Practical considerations and exigent circumstances inform the definition and reach of the law’s writs, including habeas corpus. The cases and our tradition reflect this precept. The laws and Constitution are designed to survive, and remain in force, in extraordinary times. Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law. The framers decided that habeas corpus, a right of first importance, must be a part of that framework, a part of that law. (Boumediene v. Bush)
Race: “The statement by Justice Harlan that ‘[o]ur Constitution is color-blind’ was most certainly justified in the context of his dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U. S. 537, 559 (1896). The court’s decision in that case was a grievous error it took far too long to overrule. Plessy, of course, concerned official classification by race applicable to all persons who sought to use railway carriages. And, as an aspiration, Justice Harlan’s axiom must command our assent. In the real world, it is regrettable to say, it cannot be a universal constitutional principle.” (Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1)