Bench Memos

This Day in Liberal Judicial Activism—February 3

1988—By a vote of 97-0, the Senate confirms President Reagan’s nomination of Ninth Circuit judge Anthony M. Kennedy to fill the seat of retiring Justice Lewis Powell. Kennedy was Reagan’s third pick, following the October 1987 defeat of the nomination of Judge Robert Bork and the withdrawal of the subsequent decision to nominate Judge Douglas Ginsburg.

Often misdescribed as a “moderate conservative,” Kennedy in fact embraces an aggressive view of judicial power. While he sometimes deploys that power towards conservative ends, his misdeeds of liberal judicial activism are far more momentous—and are often masked by grandiose rhetorical diversions. To cite but a few examples:

“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 v. Casey (1992). Translation: We justices have the unbounded authority to decide which matters you yahoo citizens should be prohibited from addressing through legislation.

“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 (2005). As Justice Scalia responds, Kennedy relies on foreign sources “not to underscore our ‘fidelity’ to the Constitution, our ‘pride in its origins,’ and ‘our own [American] heritage,’” but to override the “centuries-old American practice … of letting a jury of 12 citizens decide whether, in the particular case, youth should be the basis for withholding the death penalty.”

 

“The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” So begins Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), inventing a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Quoting this passage, Justice Scalia laments that the Supreme Court “has descended from the disciplined legal reasoning of John Marshall and Joseph Story to the mystical aphorisms of the fortune cookie.” 

“Had those who drew and ratified the Due Process Clauses of the Fifth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment known the components of liberty in its manifold possibilities, they might have been more specific”—and spelled out a constitutional right to homosexual sodomy. Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Translation: We modern justices are so much wiser than the Framers and therefore entitled to trump the political processes willy-nilly.

“The right to think is the beginning of freedom, and speech must be protected from the government because speech is the beginning of thought.” Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (2002) (emphasis added). It’s odd that Kennedy would think that speech (including opinion-writing?) should precede thinking. The notion is especially odd in a case concerning virtual child pornography.

2010In Perry v. Schwarzenegger—the case challenging California’s Proposition 8 and traditional marriage—the ACLU Foundation of Southern California continues its involvement in the case by filing a post-trial amicus brief on behalf of its national affiliate, the American Civil Liberties Union.

Ramona Ripston, the wife of Ninth Circuit judge Stephen Reinhardt, is the executive director of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California and (per its website) is “responsible for all phases of the organization’s programs, including litigation.” In addition to leading the political opposition to Proposition 8, Ripston engaged in confidential discussions with the lawyers for the Perry plaintiffs about whether they should file the case. And months later, she will publicly celebrate Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision striking down Proposition 8.

Yet when the wonders of not-random-after-all selection assign arch-activist Reinhardt to the Ninth Circuit panel to review Walker’s decision in this very case, Reinhardt somehow will decline to recuse himself. He will instead end up writing the majority opinion in support of (and providing the decisive vote for) a divided-panel holding affirming Walker’s ruling.

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