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If you like Anthony M. Kennedy's story, you might also like:
David Boies,
Ruth Bader Ginsburg,
Rudolph Giuliani,
Alberto R. Gonzales,
Frank M. Johnson,
George J. Mitchell,
Ralph Nader,
Anthony Romero,
Albie Sachs,
Barry Scheck,
John Sexton and
Antonio Villaraigosa

Anthony M. Kennedy's recommended reading: Nineteen Eighty-Four

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Supreme Court of the United States

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Anthony Kennedy
Anthony Kennedy
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Anthony Kennedy Interview (page: 3 / 6)

Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court

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  Anthony Kennedy

You were not yet 40 years old when you were appointed to the federal bench. You were the youngest federal appellate court judge in America and the third youngest in the history of this country. How do you account for that?

Anthony Kennedy: In a way, I was a little ahead of the curve because of my experience with my father and being basically a law clerk in his chambers. So, I was a little ahead of the curve in that respect. I think it's a mistake to go on the appellate bench too young, and I might have been too young, because it's very important that you bring to each case a new energy, a new commitment, because what you do is very important to the litigants, and so I was very careful to watch myself for the signs of burnout or disinterest. And so, I've always taught, and I continue to teach, which I thought was important to do. But, as I said, I wanted to be a trial judge. Watergate had come along; they weren't making new trial judges, and there was an opening in the Court of Appeals. And then Governor Reagan asked if I would like to be considered for that, and I thought, "Well, you know, the merry-go-round goes around, and there's an empty horse, and if you don't get on it, the next time it goes around somebody is on the horse." So, I thought maybe I should take this opportunity.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Was there a learning curve for you?

Anthony Kennedy: There's always a learning curve in any occupation, in any new project you undertake, so of course there was. It was a more introspective occupation than I had thought. You have to ask yourself, "What is it that's making me do this? Why am I deciding this?" It's surprising how often you have to go back to square one.

You know, all of us have an instinctive judgment that we make. You meet a person, you say, "I trust this person. I don't trust this person. I find her interesting. I don't find him interesting." Whatever. You make these quick judgments. That's the way you get through life. And, judges do the same thing. And, I suppose there's nothing wrong with that if it's just a beginning point. But, after you make a judgment, you then must formulate the reason for your judgment into a verbal phrase, into a verbal formula. And then, you have to see if that makes sense, if it's logical, if it's fair, if it accords with the law, if it accords with the Constitution, if it accords with your own sense of ethics and morality. And, if at any point along this process you think you're wrong, you have to go back and do it all over again. And that's, I think, not unique to the law, in that any prudent person behaves that way.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Some law professors say, "We teach you how to think," as if nobody else does. That sounds a little bit pretentious. All good teachers -- all good citizens -- are interested in thinking. It is true that in the law we teach you to think about very ordinary things in a very formal way, and I had to realize that. The other thing I had to learn was this:

Lawyers, judges, law professors talk all the time about stare decisis. If you want to say something important, we use Latin because it makes it sound more important. Stare decisis means that you're bound by what previous judges have decided, unless it's very wrong and very important, and then you have to depart from that precedent and that's a major event in the law. But essentially, you're bound by stare decisis. When I went on the court, I thought, "Well, this is not very interesting. It's antiquarian. It's like historical research." I thought I'd be like a scientist putting together an explanation for an experiment that had failed, and I go back and say, "Well, you did this wrong or you did that," and I was interested in it because I love the law, but I thought it was rather limiting. I was quite mistaken. Really, the dynamic of being bound by precedent, the so called stare decisis, is very forward-looking, because it teaches you that you will be bound by what you do. You're the first person that will be bound by what you do, and if you're on a court which reviews other courts, they will all be bound by what you do. So, there is really a very forward-looking dynamic to judging. You must ask yourself, to the extent that you can without being imprecise, "How will my judgment play out in the future?" And, there's a lot of looking out the window in that job.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I was in Thailand right after the tsunami. A judge's conference had been scheduled, and I thought, "Gee, should we be having a judge's conference in the wake of this terrible human tragedy?" Colin Powell was still the Secretary of State. The State Department called and said, "This is very important. You have to go to Thailand for this judge's conference. They're talking about what it is to build a society, and you build a society with a legal system. Law is part of the capital infrastructure." We can talk about that later, but going back to Thailand...

We went to Bangkok, I think it was three and a half weeks after the tsunami. It was 400 miles from where the tragedy had occurred, and the Buddhist people are very quiet and introspective themselves, and didn't want to talk much about the specific tragedy. But, I talked there with a priest who had been working with the victims of the tsunami. And he used the method pioneered by the psychologist Robert Coles, who would talk to little children, and he'd give them a blank sheet of paper and some crayons and ask the child to draw while they were talking. As if, in this interview, you were asking me to draw something, and he would -- he worked with 10 and 12-year-old, 13-year-old kids who had lost everything -- their brothers, their sisters, their parents, their homes -- and he gave that kid four pieces of paper, and at first he said, "Draw what your life was - your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your house. And the second one was, "Draw the tsunami because you have to confront evil and the forces of nature which have injured you and somehow come to grips with it. You can't repress this, so draw the tsunami, draw the event." And the fourth paper, of course, was "Draw what you'd like your life to be." But the third paper was the hardest, and that's "Draw the present. Draw the present." These kids had a particularly difficult problem in drawing the present, because it was a completely changed environment they had to adjust to. But, it occurred to me that maybe it's the hardest for all of us to draw the present. We'd probably make a mistake when we predict the future, but at least we're confident that we know what it ought to be like, what we want it to be like. And, judges have to understand that they have to, in part, deal with the present.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

I can look back and know what the law was. I can look forward and say at least what I think it ought to be, but you must be careful you're not missing something. History is moving very quickly, and we're moving with it, and it's hard for us to assess whether or not we're taking the right direction. I don't think our society as a whole does a very good job, frankly, of asking where they're headed.

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This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 15:28 EST
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