A call for civil discourse comes from former U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. He was in Philadelphia at the National Constitution Center to receive the 31st annual Liberty Medal.
Speakers who introduced Kennedy to the crowd said he knows something about civil discourse. He was a swing vote on the highest court for three decades.
He joined the ranks of other people “of courage and conviction who strive to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe.”
Past recipients include professional boxer Muhammad Ali, Pakistani activist
Malala Yousafzai, and pop star Bono.
The former justice’s career included teaching constitutional law at California’s University of the Pacific before President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1987.
He would spend the next three decades casting key votes and writing some of the most influential opinions.
“Perhaps no justice in the history of the supreme court has been more associated with the word liberty than Justice Kennedy,” said Jeffrey Rosen, National Constitution Center President, and CEO.
Kennedy, in part, was awarded the medal for “inspiring Americans of all ages to learn about the Constitution through civic education and civil dialogue,” which speakers stressed.
Sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who introduced Kennedy to the crowd of hundreds, lauded Kennedy for his thoughtful approach to deciding any case before him.
“When at last he did reach a final judgment and found himself at odds with a colleague or a clerk, he wouldn’t hesitate to disagree, but he never did so disagreeable,” said Gorsuch. “Never in person, never in print.”
Kennedy used his time at the pulpit to stress the importance of civil discourse by the country’s citizenry and government.
He said most often the rest of the world doesn’t judge the U.S. by the actual constitution with “the big C.” Instead, they judge American Democracy by what our public dialogue looks like.
“We have a duty to show by our civic discourse that we can be a rational, thoughtful, tolerant, decent, kind people,” Kennedy said.
The former justice said that responsibility also fell on the shoulders of the three branches of government, “Because how we behave as a government in a formal sense should set an example for how our citizens to be.”
Past Liberty Medal recipients, including late U.S. Sen. John McCain from Arizona, have also used their pulpit time at the ceremony as an opportunity to weigh in on the country’s state of affairs.
McCain, who was the 2017 Liberty Medal recipient, pushed back against an isolationist U.S. in his acceptance speech, a rejection of President Trump’s approach to foreign policy without ever mentioning his name.
Kennedy’s call for civility comes at a highly partisan time for the U.S. between the ongoing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and while his own legacy falls under scrutiny.
Last week, Democratic Presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of Southbend, Indiana, came under fire for suggesting the Supreme Court needed more justices like Kennedy– he has since said he’d nominate progressive judges.
Kennedy wrote one of the majority opinions in 1992’s Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, which said states could not create laws that would make it difficult for a woman to get an abortion before the “fetus attains viability.”
He also helped move the needle in the 2015 case Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage.
Equally as influential was Kennedy’s majority opinion for Citizens United, which allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited dollars on political campaigns, and his vote last June that upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban.
Still, Kennedy’s retirement helped Trump shift the court’s balance to the right. Kennedy’s replacement, Brett Kavanaugh, a former Kennedy clerk, is a reliable conservative vote.