Justice Kennedy talks to London students about U.S. law
ANNE MARIE MATTINGLY
The interest of American citizens in their Constitution and the legal system based upon it is unique among world countries, said Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a lecture Thursday to Notre Dame students in London. "Americans [during the Revolutionary War] now identify themselves as existing for a Constitution. [It] is their self-identity," he said. "The Constitution doesn't belong to judges and lawyers. It's the people's."
Kennedy noted that the First Amendment is of particular significance in developing citizens' interest in the document.
"The First Amendment is very important, because it gives the citizen a tangible stake in the Constitution," he said. "Loyalty to the Constitution is not some genetic thing. It has to be taught."
Kennedy noted that legalistic thinking and concern about constitutional matters has been a hallmark of American citizens throughout history.
"Americans in the 1760s were probably the most legally literate people the world has ever known," explained Kennedy. "We didn't have many lawyers, but [law books were] on the bookshelves. America has been legalistic in its self-definition ever since. For us, sovereignty was a solution."
Kennedy explained that the Revolutionary War occurred in part because colonists wanted more involvement with their government and legal system.
"It really was an accomplished feat before we had a justification, and when we declared our independence, we said, `We want freedom,'" he said. "We wanted to be part of a constitutional process, and the English constitutional system was too delicate. There simply wasn't any room [to allow] the colonies to be part of that."
Kennedy noted that the pattern of debate over constitutional issues continues in the present day and that the American people's understanding of the Constitution evolves into new meanings as time passes.
"Each generation has to relearn the Constitution in the context of its own time," he said, noting the constitutional debate on flag-burning as an example. "It teaches you that liberty isn't cost-free."
Kennedy said he believes that citizens of other nations do not take as great of an interest in the rulings of their courts because these courts are removed from their everyday lives.
"[Americans question] the historical basis that allows the transfer of sovereignty to these international courts somewhat removed from their people," he said.
"I see [decisions] that look like rulings from an administrative agency," Kennedy said of the international courts. "I don't see that reasoning, that rhetoric that characterizes [the American legal system]."
Kennedy graduated from Stanford University in 1958 and spent the following year studying at the London School of Economics. He received his degree from Harvard Law School in 1961 and was admitted to the California Bar Association in 1962.
After spending 12 years in private practice, Kennedy was appointed by President Gerald Ford to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 1976. President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court bench in 1987 and the Senate confirmed him the next year.
All News Stories for Friday, September 17, 1999