Why Anthony Kennedy Gave Up

In his last year on the bench, the lifelong devotee of dignity and the rule of law joined Team Trump. What happened?

Anthony Kennedy speaking into a microphone
Justice Anthony Kennedy delivers speaks at the White House on April 10, 2017, in Washington. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It was always more fan fiction than reality that Justice Anthony Kennedy was a moderate centrist. Democrats liked to soothe themselves with the story that Kennedy was a moderate because he’d provided the fifth vote to support continued affirmative action, reproductive rights, and gay rights and had strung the left along with the tantalizing promise of someday finding an unconstitutional political gerrymander. But we always knew that Kennedy was a conservative, indeed a very conservative conservative. Recall that in the famous study done in 2008 by Richard Posner and William Landes, “Four of the five most conservative justices to serve on the Supreme Court since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, including [John] Roberts and [Samuel] Alito, are currently sitting on the bench today.” And Kennedy? He was ranked in that study as the 10th most conservative justice in the past century.

To the extent we wrote paeans to Kennedy, it was for his occasional defections in areas that materially affect the lives of millions of people—women, minorities, LGBTQ couples, voters, Guantanamo detainees. And to be sure, each of those votes was well worth it. But we knew that for each such vote, there was a Bush v. Gore, a Citizens United, a Shelby County. And this term ended, perhaps fittingly, with Kennedy voting with the conservatives to hobble public-sector unions, to support mandatory arbitration clauses and voter purges, and to increase the unchecked power of an already imperial presidency. As Richard Hasen noted on Tuesday, Kennedy’s work here was clearly done. His concurrence in the Muslim ban case essentially signaled that Kennedy had all but given up on the notion of the judiciary as a meaningful check on the other two branches. As Hasen correctly called it, that concurrence landed as “a general statement of judicial powerlessness to solve social problems and an abdication of responsibility on the part of the courts to enforce key parts of the Constitution, in favor of a plea for self-restraint on the part of elected officials.” From a man who devoted a career to the proposition that the courts alone could fix things, it sounded in the key of “I’m out.”

There will be myriad theories and hypotheses about why Kennedy all but gave up on his project of centrism, civility, norm preservation, and institutional self-preservation this year. I’ve never heard him speak so eloquently as when he was defending those values and celebrating the extraordinary role American courts and judges have played to foster such values in democracies around the world. One senses in his cri de coeur in NIFLA, Tuesday’s abortion-speech case, that he is viscerally bothered by progressive states like California attempting to be “forward thinking” (read: authoritarian) when it comes to truth in advertising around reproductive options. One senses in his vision of uncivil discourse in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case a growing frustration with what he sees as impolite discussions about religious liberty issues he wanted us to discuss civilly. One senses in his concurrence in the travel ban case a sort of stutter-step apology to “an anxious world” that watches the norms and institutions of constitutional democracy crumble.

As Mark Stern and I noted on Tuesday, it was hard to see Kennedy’s concurrence in that case as anything more than a concession that the last adult in the room was now leaving the building. Maybe it’s a fitting end to his career to say that the man who wanted everyone to speak to one another civilly and respectfully did what everyone else has done this year and threw in the towel. It’s hardly a stretch to say that Kennedy’s lasting caution from Obergefell—the marriage equality decision—was his request that the nation resolve the oncoming conflict between gay rights and religious dissenters by “engag[ing] those who disagree with their view in an open and searching debate.”

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

And so the formerly “centrist” Anthony Kennedy ended his Supreme Court career by taking sides, not simply in the spate of bombshell 5–4 decisions that came out in recent weeks. He took sides in a rhetorical war about the suffering of Christian bakers and pregnancy centers, and the language of “no you’re the radical” he now directs at liberals with whom he could once find common cause. It wasn’t so much that Kennedy ever represented the “center” of the court. He was no more the center than John Roberts will be the center of a vastly more conservative post-Kennedy Supreme Court. But Kennedy did become, for a time, a symbol of certain values around judging and justice—of acute concern that both sides be heard, of respect for the rule of law, and of solicitude for at least some communities that were invisible to his colleagues on the right. And to the extent that this was the center, it is perhaps apt that it falls away at the end of this term. Those institutional and rhetorical values feel like the relic of another time. Neither Sonia Sotomayor nor Samuel Alito has any patience for that kind of signaling anymore.

Democrats should rightly be terrified that Kennedy’s legacy around gay rights, reproductive rights, affirmative action, some kinds of racial justice, and student prayer are in immediate peril. And Democrats can now be fully assured that the Supreme Court will not step in to stop Donald Trump’s excesses. And to be sure, the reason the court will not stand up to future acts of Trumpism is that Kennedy, who tried to be the bridge at the court for so many decades, gave up and joined Team Trump.

Many of us predicted that Kennedy would not allow Trump to replace him with someone who would dismantle his legacy. We were wrong. Many of us believed that a lifelong devotee of dignity, civility, and the rule of law would not want his work tarnished by a president who routinely attacks individual judges and the very notion of an independent judiciary. We were wrong. That two of Anthony Kennedy’s last judicial acts included a letter that opened “My dear Mr. President” and a vote to grant that same president a virtual blank check on the national security front certainly suggests that nothing about a president who lies, bullies, and destabilizes the rule of law was any kind of real impediment to Kennedy’s departure.

We will debate in the coming months whether Kennedy tacked back to the right this year or if he was never anything but a staunch conservative who enjoyed occasional casual day trips to the left side of the bench. But one thing is beyond doubt: If there was anything like a “moderate center” inside the only branch of government not broken by polarization, it’s gone. Even the idea of such a thing is gone. For any of us who clung to such symbols, it’s a bracing reminder that there is no longer a center, or even a center built of make-believe.