You grew up in California, in the state capital. What was it like growing up in Sacramento in the 1930s and '40s?
Anthony Kennedy: It was a wonderful town and a wonderful time. What's the movie with Jimmy Stewart? It's a Wonderful Life.
As I look back, many of my parents' closest friends were in the government of the State of California -- the Director of Public Works, the Chief Counsel for the legislature, the head of the Franchise Tax Board -- and these people were very proud to be public servants. And, people talk sometimes about the British civil servant, being absolutely committed, people of great integrity. This is what those people were like in California when I was growing up. And, they had this idea of public service, and looking back now, I suppose that was a formative influence on me. At the time you meet someone who is a role model, you don't realize that he or she is a role model, but then you look back and you understand what some of the formative influences in your life were. And, I think being in the government of the State of California, they had this pride that carried down to me, and I'm very proud to be a government servant.
What were you like as a kid? How would you describe your childhood?
Anthony Kennedy: We had a very vibrant, active household. My father had a rule that my mother always had to set a couple extra places at the dinner table, because people would come from out of the city, from out of the state to see him and consult him. He was a great attorney. And he would bring them home for dinner because he wanted to be with us. And we were taught to stay at the dinner table and to participate in the conversations.
What age were you when you were a page boy?
Anthony Kennedy: I think I started in the fourth grade and did it through the eighth grade, so I was this young, little kid. It probably stunted my growth because of all the cigar smoke they had in those days. As a result, I knew Earl Warren very well, on a somewhat professional basis. Professional, as in I was a nine-year-old page boy and he was the Governor. We knew his children and played in the Governor's Mansion and so forth. I have a letter I've given to the Supreme Court Historical Society, in which he wrote and said, "You're going to go very far in government." I'm very proud of the fact that I knew well someone who later became the Chief Justice of the United States.
Did you always know you wanted to do this for a career?
Anthony Kennedy: Oh, there was really, really no choice. My dad was an attorney. I think he knew he would not have a long life. He was a solo practitioner. He would take me to his trials in Northern California, in these little towns because he was lonely. I'd say, "Oh, I have a geometry test." He said, "I'll teach you whatever you need to know." So, I probably saw ten trials before I was out of high school and took notes at the counsel table, and worked late in his office typing documents. So, it was not a question, "Would you be a doctor or a lawyer or a priest?" It was just assumed.
You were always a lawyer in training?
Anthony Kennedy: I suppose. I really wanted to be a doctor.
What didn't you like about school?
Were you a good student?
Anthony Kennedy: I was a good student. I was kind of a study nerd, I guess.
What books were important to you? What did you read as a child?
Anthony Kennedy: I read everything that I could get my hands on. My father loved to read Dickens, so we would read that out loud. We'd read Shakespeare out loud, adventure books. People don't read them anymore. Howard Pease was a mystery writer for boys, and his hero was a kid who ran away from home and he became a mate on a ship. It was called The Tattooed Man. It was kind of a kids' version of Herman Melville.
Were there teachers that were important to you?
Anthony Kennedy: Very! I had a wonderful fourth grade teacher who I think was formative. She gave me extra things to read to keep me interested.
What inspired you, what motivated you when you were growing up?
Anthony Kennedy: I don't know. It may be that I had a certain amount of insecurity, as all young kids do. I was a skinny kid.
In the summer, I got jobs in the oil fields. My uncle was in the oil business, and so at the age of I think 14, I got my first job kind of cleaning up around the oil rig. And then, I learned how to do that, and I went to Montana, Canada, New Orleans. I worked on a drilling barge on the Gulf in the summer. You could make a lot of money in those days, by the standards of those days, in the oil fields, and so I saved that to help for my education, and I loved it.
What do you think you learned from those experiences? As a page in the State Senate or working in an oil field?
Anthony Kennedy: I think I maybe learned more in the oil fields than I did in the State Senate. I think there's a lot of wisdom in the working man and the working woman. I think they're very concerned with what the country is like, what their life should be like. And I think that taught me a lot, because I was the butt of many jokes when I was a little kid working with these high-powered people in the oil fields, and I had to learn to adjust to that and try to pull my own weight.
What was most difficult for you growing up?
Did you want to follow in your father's footsteps?
Anthony Kennedy: I did. I wanted to be a trial lawyer. I went to Stanford, and then I went to the London School of Economics, and then Harvard Law School.
What did you do after law school? Where did you get your first job?
How did you move from this law practice to a career in public service?
Anthony Kennedy: I wasn't sure I wanted to be a judge. But some of the people I admired most in the community were judges. I loved the law. I thought I could best contribute to the law as a judge. I really wanted to be a trial judge. You see real people. You can influence the course of some particular person's life in a way that's more immediate than you can as an appellate judge, which is a writing exercise. If most people could see what an appellate judge does, they would find it very uninteresting. It would be like following the life of a writer. You don't have the excitement of juries and witnesses.
What does it take to be a good judge?
Anthony Kennedy: I was teaching this last summer at the school for judges in Europe, which is in the Netherlands, and their system is different from ours. In Europe -- many parts of the world -- right out of school, you elect one of two paths: you're either a judge or an attorney. And so, you're a judge at the very beginning, although you begin as just a clerk for the court, but you work your way up the judge's ladder. So, I was teaching a class for young judges, and so they were in their late 20's, and a lovely woman raised her hand, and she said, "How can I be a good judge if I still need to know so much concerning the world around me?" And, it was one of those questions I wasn't prepared for, but everybody was quiet, so it was also one of the defining moments of the class. If you're a classroom teacher, you never know, you stumble sometimes on what's a dynamic moment. And, I said -- so she asked me, "How can I be a good judge if there's so much I still have to learn concerning the world around me?" and I said, "If you always ask yourself that question, then you will be a good judge. If you realize that your learning doesn't end when you go on the bench, it begins anew, then you'll be a good judge." That was the answer I gave her.
You have to struggle to be neutral, you have to struggle to be impartial, which is why the courts have rules. Some people say, "Oh, these judges are so stuffy. They have these traditions, the black robe." This is designed to remind you that your function is greater than you are. You must represent something that's greater than you are, and that's the law, which has a life and a language and a logic of its own.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
How difficult is it to transcend your own points of view and your own feelings when those are at issue?
Today is June 3, and by June 15, all of our dissents and opinions must be circulated internally. And by June 30, we will finish our work for the year: 80, 90, 100 cases. That doesn't mean we're better than the Congress, or more committed or more principled, it just means we're different. All we can do is decide. A case is presented to us, and it's our duty and obligation to decide it, whether we want to or not. We decide it within the language of the law, and the language of the law is different than the languages of the political branches. Not better, not worse, different. It's more confined.
The language of the law has a grammar, a logic, a tradition, a dynamic, an elegance, a syntax. It's all its own. It's the language of the law. It's very formal. We are constrained by that language of the law. We can decide only within the confines of that language. Other branches of the government, providentially and happily, have a different language. The job of the citizen is to translate, and the job of the lawyer is to translate the language of the law to the language of everyday life.
Could you imagine, when you embarked on this life as a judge, that you would one day be a Justice of the Supreme Court?
Why do you think Anthony Kennedy made it to the Supreme Court?
Anthony Kennedy: I like to think that those who were interested in my appointment thought that I was devoted to the law, and that I would be fair. That's all that I ever ask of myself. That's all I ever try to hold myself out to be.
Are you ever troubled by fears of making a wrong decision. Have you felt self-doubt, agonizing over these things?
Anthony Kennedy: Yes. If you have complete confidence that you're right, then you'd better do a reality check. Now, there's a difference between being weak and indecisive and not knowing at once what you're going to do. You have the duty of introspection and reflection and study, and of judging, of adjudicating, based on what you hear. I think you have a duty to keep an open mind. That's not indecisiveness. That's just a commitment to the tradition of the law. Of course, you wonder if you've missed things. On the Court of Appeals it's a bit harder, because you're the first appellate court. You have to make sure that the issue you're talking about was what the trial judge's decision turned on, and that the attorneys have given you all of the law. On the Court of Appeals, I used to say, "There must be something on this that the attorneys have missed that I have to find for myself." We don't have that problem on the Supreme Court because we're a second or third-tier review, and the issue has been refined. Different courts have already disagreed when we enter the fray. So on the Supreme Court, it's actually easier to identify the issue you're supposed to decide. How to go about deciding it and what the results should be is more difficult, because you can't make a mistake without really hurting the system.
What were you thinking on the first day that you donned the black robe of the Supreme Court? Was there a weight of history? Was there trepidation? Was there anticipation?
Anthony Kennedy: There was, since I had been an appellate judge and was committed to the law. I teach constitutional law, and that's mostly Supreme Court decisions. Since I taught the decisions of the Supreme Court, I thought I knew about the inside dynamics. I was wrong about that. I didn't fully comprehend the difficulty of the position at the time I took it.
The Supreme Court has these marble steps, it looks like we couldn't have had a Supreme Court if we didn't have Greek architecture. We look at the Capitol Building, and the White House is there and the Washington Monument. I told some school kids not long ago, "Washington is a stage set for democracy." The minute I said that, I thought, "Well, I don't want to cheapen the enterprise or use too popular or vacuous a metaphor," so I immediately explained to them, but it's real. It's designed to remind you that what you're doing is very important. You are put onto a stage with these props around you to help you realize that what you're doing is important and does have a significance and does have an obligation and does have a duty and does have an oath connected with it and you must respect your position.
No matter what the field is, you can't please all of the people all of the time, least of all on the Supreme Court. How do you deal with criticism, with controversy?
Anthony Kennedy: I haven't thought much about that question. In part, we're so busy working on the next case, we can't worry about the last one. You must be very confident that you're not deciding one way or the other because of popular opinion.
The dynamic of the law is that it transcends -- or attempts to transcend -- the emotions of the time. That's the dynamic of the legal system. Most law professors and many commentators say that the judicial review -- the idea that courts can set aside legislation -- is anti-majoritarian, or contra-majoritarian, so that a majority can't make its will binding on an injured minority. That's true in one sense, false in another. It may be true that when we set aside a particular congressional enactment or a state law -- which is an awful function, awful in the sense of powerful -- it's true that we, for the moment, may displease the majority. But, if you look over time, if you ask what the American people -- the majority of the American people -- want over time, over our history, they want judicial review. They want to make sure that the promises of the Constitution are honored, that the commitments we made basically over time with our ancestors are followed.
And, the Constitution defines the American people. Americans have their self-definition -- their self-identity -- shaped by the Constitution. When we rebelled against England, the rest of the world said, "What do these Americans want? What's the problem?" The Americans said, "We want freedom." People in England and Europe said, "Freedom? Those are the freest people in the world! They have all the property they need, all the land. What are they talking about, freedom?" So we had to send a fax back to them, an e-mail, as to what our principles were, what the reason for this revolt was, what the reason was that we were committing our young people to confront the British military. The reason we gave was a legal one. The Declaration of Independence is basically an indictment of King George, and the Constitution is a formulation of what we think the principles of freedom are, and that's what defines America.
We're so fortunate. Either by accident or history or providence or design, I think all those. The self-definition, the self-image of an American relates to his or her Constitution. No other country in the world has that. We can't be smug about this and say no other country in the world can have a constitution, but this accounts for the fact that our Constitution is the oldest constitution in the world. I've had the heads of foreign governments ask me, "I think I should amend the constitution to do this and that," usually something that helps them over the short term. And I say, "You know, a constitution, by definition, is something that has to last over time." Madison said, "The Constitution must acquire the reverence of its people, and it can only acquire that reverence over time." And so, the court wants to -- is a way, is one way of reminding Americans, of reminding ourselves that the Constitution must transcend the emotions and the opinions of a particular day. And so, criticism doesn't bother me. I think criticism is very important. The Constitution doesn't belong to a bunch of judges and lawyers. It belongs to you. It's yours. Now, we have to interpret it in this formal way, but you have to live it.
So if there's a decision people don't like, of course, we're pressured about it. I think it's unfortunate that sometimes people ascribe improper motives to judges. They don't understand the tradition. A lot of editorial writers just read the dissent, they don't read the majority opinion. The press does a fair job of reporting what we do, not a particularly good job of reporting why we do it. But that's because of the time line. They have to meet the 24-hour or 48-hour deadline, and then the public loses interest. Our function is more philosophical and has a broader time line than that.
You have a reputation as someone who can build bridges, who can build majorities, who can achieve compromise. How important is compromise in this system of ours?
Anthony Kennedy: It's essential.
Sometimes people think compromise means squishy, centrist. It doesn't. The whole idea of a democratic society is that there must be a consensus, and it's a consensus that should be based on rational dialogue. I'm not sure that mass politics with modern communications has yet found a way to have a quiet, rational dialogue. I'm not quite sure we've found the key to that. But, we not only have to do that in our own society, we must not become a hostile, factious, divisive society. We must be a society that has a broad consensus on certain very fundamental values, and we must do that because after we build bridges of understanding with ourselves, we have to build bridges of understanding with the rest of the world. I was talking to some students around the turn of the century. I guess it would be 1999, I think, and some student raised his hand and said, "What are the great issues of the next millennium?" Or the next 100 years. It was something I should have had an answer for, after dinner table conversation or something, in reflection, but I didn't. It caught me by surprise. So, I came up with an answer. I said, "We have the great challenge and the first duty to build bridges of understanding with the world of Islam." And I got more letters from that comment -- it was on C-Span -- than anything I've ever said. Thousands of letters saying, "Why?" People saying -- and it struck me that there's a void there. We're in a struggle in which our security will depend on ideas. The idea of freedom, if accepted by most of the rest of the world, is our best security. And, we must build bridges of understanding to explain the principles of freedom. And, I'm not sure that we're doing a very good job at the moment.
Are some decisions harder to make than others? What are the most difficult decisions to make?
Anthony Kennedy: I'll tell you first the easiest.
The easiest are the technical ones, the things I was trained to do in law school: how to read a statute, how to apply the rules of evidence. I have a lot of help in the history of the law for that. The most difficult ones are defining the components of human liberty because if you insist that the individual has a particular right, that means the legislature cannot infringe on that right. And, sometimes your own values and your own morals really would disapprove of the conduct that you're ratifying, but you do so because there's an area of morality. But, morality really should have an underpinning of rational choice, and each citizen must make a rational choice to determine what is good and what is evil, and those are hard.
Do you ever second-guess yourself?
Anthony Kennedy: Not often. You can't be effective if you're always worrying about the last decision. You sometimes wonder how your decisions will play out, but I think the major decisions that I've made are correct over the course of time. We must give reasons for what we do. That's another part of judicial tradition. We will be judged by those reasons.
What do you think are the most important qualities for achievement in your field?
Anthony Kennedy: I think that maybe the qualities for achievement in my field are not different -- much different -- than any others. Number one: Knowing yourself, and being honest about your own failings and your own weakness. Number two: To have an understanding that you have the opportunity to shape the destiny of this country. The framers wanted you to shape the destiny of the country. They didn't want to frame it for you. And you, I think, have to remind yourself that you can achieve something now, but that it's going to be measured in the long term. And I worry about a society in which five percent of the people use 45 percent of the nation's resources. I think that's selfish, not only for the rest of the world, but for our own grandchildren.
I think you are happiest if you find a profession or a business or an occupation where you manipulate symbols that have an intrinsic ethical content. Tom Wolfe wrote a book called Bonfire of the Vanities. It's a parody or a portrayal of New York. No one comes out well in this book. The lawyers never come out very well, newspaper people don't come out very well, clergy doesn't come out well. He has a hero or protagonist, Sherman McCoy, and he's some sort of a businessman. He goes to the beach with his daughter when she's nine or ten. He takes the day off and takes her to the beach for her birthday, and she looks up and she says, "Daddy, what do you do?" He realizes, and the reader realizes, that what he does doesn't make any difference. He manipulates symbols with no ethical content. If you're going to achieve, you have to achieve by manipulating symbols and working with systems that have an ethical content.
Is there anything you would like a second chance at, that you would like to do over again?
Looking ahead, what concerns you most? What are your major concerns as we head into the 21st century, for this country, for the world?
Anthony Kennedy: My major concern is that what I thought was the golden age of peace seems farther from our reach than I would have thought ten years ago. My major concerns are that there is not an understanding and a commitment to the idea that the American constitutional system and the American idea of freedom have certain universal components that we have the duty, number one, to understand ourselves, and number two, to explain to the rest of the world. Not at the point of a bayonet. That's sometimes necessary, but not at the point of a bayonet, but because we have a bond with all of humankind. I don't think that we are looking far ahead enough in this respect, and I am concerned that nationalism or self-interest will obscure the greatness of American traditions.
What about the contentiousness of American life today, including the judiciary and politics?
Anthony Kennedy: I think we have to do a better job of being less divisive, less narrow. Part of this is because our focus is too short term. If we had a long term objective and a consensus of long term mission, it would be less factious.
What books would you read to your grandchildren? What are the important books to you?
Anthony Kennedy: The minute I give you this list, I'll walk out the door and I'll say, "Why didn't I mention this book?"
I think fiction is very important because it gets us into the mind of a person. Hamlet is a tremendous piece of literature. You know Hamlet better than you know most real people. Do you know the reason? Because you know what he's thinking. And this teaches you that every human has an integrity and an autonomy and a spirituality of his own, of her own, and great literature can teach you that. Billy Budd, Antigone, are very important works. Antigone is brilliant. You know, in literature, the woman is a symbol of mercy and of equity: Antigone, Portia -- Rosa Parks, to use a real person. That's why Justice is a woman, even though she has a sword sometimes. I don't know if that fits, but so: Antigone, The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Billy Budd, Nineteen Eighty-Four. You and I grew up with a great fear of the Soviet military might. Nineteen Eighty-Four has one of the most brilliant scenes in literature. The protagonist is being tortured by his communist or totalitarian interrogators, and they want him to say that "Two and two is five." And finally he can't stand the torture anymore, he says, "Okay, two and two is five." But, the torture continues. He said, "Why are you continuing?" They say, "The torture continues not until you just say it, but until you believe it." And, this is a powerful reminder that governments want to plan your destiny. They want to plan what you think, and this must never happen. And so, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a book of tremendous importance, I think, in that regard.
Movies, I think young people misjudge. If you ask high school students what are good books, they usually come up with fair answers, the books they get in college prep courses. So they usually recite some of those types. Scarlet Letter? Excellent! Walden Pond? Terrible, I think. My own choice, I don't like it. But movies? They have no concept that great movies have an ethical development; a spiritual awareness happens to the character. They think movies are just entertainment. And so -- Old? Forget it! Subtitles? Forget it! Black and white? Forget it! They think of movies as having special effects for momentary entertainment, and that's very sad. I'm afraid the producers think of it that way, too, and that's very sad, because movies are a wonderful way to teach about human struggle, human conflict, human reconciliation, human atonement.
How would you like to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be?
Anthony Kennedy: Somebody who's decent, and honest, and fair, and who's absolutely committed to the proposition that freedom is America's gift to the rest of the world.
We can't thank you enough. It's been a privilege.
Well, thank you.