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Kennedy retires 30 years after being appointed Supreme Court justice

Justice Anthony Kennedy of the Supreme Court

Fiona Legesse/The Cougar

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, 82, exited his chambers for the last time July 31, leaving behind a 30-year track record of preserving freedom of speech, LGBTQ rights, affirmative action and abortion.

Kennedy, an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, announced his retirement June 27. Kennedy was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and has been the deciding vote in many landmark decisions, like one concerning a Texas sodomy law.

“He was probably the most speech protective justice, most certainly on the court that exists now,” said Emily Berman, an assistant professor at the UH Law Center. “Speech is one right that is essentially protective of all the other rights.”

The U.S. Supreme Court heads the judicial branch. As the highest federal court, the Supreme Court is the final interpreter of the constitutionality of federal laws. The Court is made up of nine justices, all appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.

Supreme Court justices serve for life unless they retire or Congress impeaches and convicts them.

Kennedy’s legacy

With the Court’s influence, Kennedy preserved freedom of expression in cases involving violent video games, protesting and lying. He protected the speaker’s right to engage even when others might find it offensive, Berman said.

For example, Kennedy said lying was a respondent’s habit in one of his opinions, according to Justia Legal Resources. He said the respondent had lied about playing “hockey for the Detroit Red Wings and that he once married a starlet from Mexico.”

The respondent went on to lie about being the recipient of a Congressional Medal of Honor, which went against a federal statute. But Kennedy’s opinion struck down the law for being too restrictive on speech, according to Justia Legal Resources.

Kennedy protects different forms of speech to foster an exchange of competing views, because they help preserve individual rights and the law, Berman said.

Social issues

In his 30 years on the bench, Kennedy played a pivotal role in cases involving social issues, Berman said. Though appointed by a Republican president, Kennedy provided the swing vote in many of the Court’s liberal rulings.

He furthered LGBTQ rights, starting with his deciding vote and opinion in Lawrence v. Texas — a case concerning Texas’ sodomy law. Twelve years later, he was the deciding vote in Obergefell v. Hodges, where the court legalized same-sex marriage.

In both cases, Kennedy voted alongside the liberal wing of the court, according to Oyez.

Jenna Pel, secretary of the UH LGBTQ Alumni Association, said Kennedy’s nationwide influence on LGBTQ rights can’t be understated.

“He will depart the Supreme Court with a legacy as a fierce advocate for civil rights,” Pel said. “Justice Kennedy’s vote helped secure the right that I can one day be lawfully wedded to a person of the same sex with the legal guarantee of equal rights and protections.”

But Kennedy’s retirement generates uncertainty on the future of LGBTQ rights, Pel said.

Berman said Kennedy had just as much influence in cases regarding abortion and affirmative action.

According to Justia Legal Resources, he was one of the authors of an opinion reaffirming Roe v. Wade — a decision defending a woman’s right to an abortion.

Kennedy was also the deciding vote in the most recent affirmative action case involving the University of Texas, where the Court decided to continue allowing race to be a factor in university admissions, according to Justia Legal Resouces.

Corporations received the same amount of protection during Kennedy’s tenure, Berman said. In a case regarding campaign financing, Kennedy said corporate funding of political campaigns cannot be limited, she said.

National influence

Pel said the Court decides some of the most controversial issues in today’s society, ranging from voting rights to unions.

“This affects Americans every day, including UH students,” Pel said.

Tammy Chang, a spokesperson for UH College Democrats, said Supreme Court decisions touch nearly every aspect of our daily lives.

“With the appointment of Justice Gorsuch and following Kennedy’s retirement, it’s clear — and concerning — that the Trump administration will leave a lasting legacy on our judicial system,” Chang said. “We hope that the Senate will consider the will of the American people before making a decision on who will sit on such an influential seat.”

The nominee’s qualifications and dedication to justice should take precedence over voting along party lines, Chang said.

Antonio Cruz, a spokesperson for UH College Republicans, said Kennedy’s influence swayed the Court’s rulings the most on social issues.

“I’m hoping that social issues, like abortion, will favor a more conservative view,” Cruz said. “In my opinion, he’s retiring now because he wants a Republican pick to replace him — because a Republican pick will most likely support freedom of speech on issues.”

Kennedy and his successor will most likely have similar records on freedom of speech, as everyone should, Cruz said.

Finding a replacement

With Kennedy’s retirement, President Donald Trump will be filling the Court’s second vacancy since 2016. Trump nominated Justice Neil Gorsuch following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, and he will be looking for Kennedy’s successor.

Before Kennedy’s retirement, four liberal and five conservative justices made up the court. Kennedy was part of the conservative wing but constantly voted on the liberal side of social issues, Berman said.

Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh, a circuit judge of the U.S Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Kennedy.

Kavanaugh, a conservative judge and devout Catholic, will most likely maintain Kennedy’s track record of protecting freedom of speech and religious freedom, Berman said.

On social issues, like LGBTQ rights and abortion, it’s unclear whether Kavanaugh will vote like Kennedy, Berman said.

“I think that conservatives are sort of betting on that in a lot of areas where Kennedy’s rulings were more on the liberal side of the spectrum, Judge Kavanaugh will differ from him significantly,” Berman said. “But Kennedy’s legacy will remain intact.”

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