U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy arrived in his native Sacramento on Tuesday with education uppermost in his mind.
"A democracy is only as strong as you make it, and you can't make it strong unless you know its history," he told high school students Wednesday at the federal courthouse.
He peppered them with thorny questions and then pressed them to elaborate on their answers, much as he must have done when he taught constitutional law at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law.
The 70 or so students were from McClatchy High School. Kennedy and Sacramento's Chief U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr., who presided at the session, are McClatchy graduates.
In a conversation earlier at his hotel, Kennedy said he believes everyone, old and young alike, should take a college course on the Constitution.
"Everybody should know how this wonderful idea unfolded over time," he said.
He carries a compact copy of the Constitution in his inside breast pocket, but it's doubtful he ever has to consult it.
Kennedy is here for today's dedication of the courthouse's library and brand-new learning center in his name, a reflection of his keen interest in teaching young people about government, the law and civic responsibility.
The tall, trim, balding justice is now 76, but a quick step, ruddy complexion and eager, genial manner leave the impression of a much younger man.
When he emerged from his hotel room he had been on the phone with his chambers.
"Two inches of snow stopped the superpower (the U.S. government) in its tracks," he marveled. "We (the court) are closed, but my law clerks are all there."
He was wearing a dark suit and carrying a laptop case, a raincoat and a white box, which was full of his designer bookmarks, which he wanted passed out to the students. On one side is a photo of the American flag, flying outside the Supreme Court building and framed between two of its majestic columns. On the other side is Kennedy's own definition of "The Rule of Law," which has been adopted by the United Nations as a global definition.
The justice is a supreme raconteur.
Sitting in the quiet of a not-yet-open restaurant off the hotel's lobby, he talked of old times in Sacramento, where he was born, grew up and was a lawyer and lobbyist until his appointment to the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals by President Gerald R. Ford, who acted on the recommendation of then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. He proudly showed the words "McClatchy Newspapers," the former name of the company that owns The Bee, embroidered on the laptop case. He said it was given to him by the late James B. McClatchy, a member of the family that holds a controlling interest in the company, at a newspaper publishers' convention.
"There was a lot I would have liked to have told them," he said. Regretfully, he added, the convention was somewhat loosely organized and the publishers were not very attentive.
When Reagan, by then president, told Kennedy he wanted to nominate him for the Supreme Court, he recalled telling Reagan he was not sure he wanted to move to Washington, D.C.
"I don't know anybody there," he told the president.
Doing an uncannily accurate imitation of Reagan, he said the president replied, "You know me."
"It worked out fine," he said, "because all three of my children and all of my grandchildren wound up living in the East."
On the ride to the courthouse, he pointed out locations that prompted fond memories. He admits that, despite his quarter of a century on the high court, he thinks of Sacramento as home.
Passing Frank Fat's reminded Kennedy of times when he had to work late and would sneak in the back door of the restaurant, get a booth and work while he ate.
He thought of a time – without amusement – when he was handed a bill for $200 after politicians in the bar had put their booze on his tab.
"It's hard to do something you don't really like," he mused in reference to his role as a lobbyist.
As a moderate conservative, and with the polarization of the nine-member court – four conservatives and four liberals – Kennedy has become the so-called "swing vote," and has been described by a number of legal scholars and some in the media as "the most powerful individual in America."
He scoffs at the notion.
"Each of us has one vote," he stressed. "I don't like the 'swing vote' label. It raises a visual image of spatial gyrations. The cases are different and they swing from one set of facts to another. But I don't swing.
"Certainly there are disagreements among us. It is a process, and we all bring our interpretations of the law to the factual scenarios."
He said the framers left a broad outline known as the Constitution and it has stood the test of time.
"It's just a matter of applying it."
Some observers see Kennedy as less conservative than he was in his early years on the court.
"I never really think in those terms," he said. "I dislike being typed like that. It is really unfortunate."
But, he acknowledged, "So many of our decisions are viewed through a political matrix, and I think that too is unfortunate."
Unlike some colleagues, Kennedy does not talk publicly about cases before the court.
"We have a tradition of not telling each other what to do," he said. "But I believe it's unfair to the lawyers."
He said he does not see retirement in his future, believing that he will stay on the court "until my voice is not needed."
In brief closing remarks in the courthouse's first-floor rotunda, Kennedy told the students:
"Make no mistake, the rest of the world will be looking at you to see what kind of a culture you create." He urged them to make it one composed of "decent, honorable, caring people."