Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was awarded the Liberty Medal on Sunday evening at the National Constitution Center. In his acceptance of the award, Kennedy called for people, but especially government, to have respectful, open dialogue in making decisions.
Kennedy, who retired from the court in 2018, was honored for his efforts to educate Americans about the Constitution through civic education and civil dialogue. The medal, which is accompanied by a $100,000 prize, is presented annually to someone who has worked to secure and promote liberty to people around the world.
“Perhaps no justice in the history of the Supreme Court has been more associated with the word liberty than Justice Kennedy,” Jeffrey Rosen, CEO of the National Constitution Center, said to the few hundred people who attended the ceremony.
Associate Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, honorary chair of the National Constitution Center and a former clerk of Kennedy’s, awarded the medal to the retired justice. Gorsuch called Kennedy a mentor, colleague and friend who has been a great defender of liberty.
He told personal stories of working for Kennedy as a clerk and how even in what seemed to be the easiest of cases to decide, Kennedy treated every decision with the same dedication and open mind.
“He would listen to the parties with incredible care. He talked the issues over with his law clerks and colleagues, and only then would he decide a case,” Gorsuch said. “His enthusiasm, his attention to detail, his interest in entertaining different views, and his willingness to change his mind: Those were infectious.”
Kennedy, a Sacramento native and Harvard Law School grad, worked in the private and public sector and taught constitutional law at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law before being appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 1975. President Ronald Reagan nominated Kennedy to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987. Kennedy served from 1988 until his retirement last year.
Kennedy was considered a key swing vote on the court. He would sometimes side with the liberals and at other times with his conservative colleagues. He wrote the opinion on the decision that legalized gay marriage and defended abortion rights. The latter drew a group of protesters Sunday night outside the Constitution Center.
Kennedy also sided with gun rights and the Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited spending in political campaigns.
On Sunday, Gorsuch repeated advice that Kennedy gave him when he was sworn in as a federal judge. The advice was simple: Listen. Kennedy also told him that a judge’s job is a hard one because someone will always win and someone will always lose based on the decision.
“Each time, you are likely to be criticized by somebody and praised by somebody else. Pay no attention to either of those things. Those winds shift daily," Gorsuch recalled Kennedy saying. “Remember instead that you’re part of something much greater. … the promise of the rule of law and of equal justice in our own time."
During Kennedy’s career, he emphasized the importance of civic education and has worked to promote it. He has lectured and taught at universities all over the world, including 23 years teaching constitutional law.
On Sunday, Kennedy said the award would give new energy to a “magnificent world" that “so needs the Constitution and the values” it promotes.
He spoke about the importance of having civil discourse and how the country projects itself to the rest of the world.
“It’s the Constitution that defines us, and the rest of the world is watching, and the verdict of freedom is still out,” he said. "We have a duty to show by our civic discourse that we can be a rational, thoughtful, tolerant, decent, kind people.”
Without getting into details of current events or political polarization, Kennedy repeated that it’s important now “in these times” more than ever to have government and people resolve issues in thoughtful, decent and rational ways.
“How we behave as a government in a formal sense should set an example of how our citizens should behave,” he said.