U.S. Justice Kennedy visits Penn law school

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (right) talks with Penn Law dean Michael Fitts.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (right) talks with Penn Law dean Michael Fitts. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 08, 2013

Most of the time, the usual order of business for members of the Supreme Court is that they are approached gingerly by supplicant lawyers arguing their cases.

They - members of the court, that is - are the ones who get to ask the questions during oral argument.

But for a few days last week, the order was reversed when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy visited the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He taught a class on constitutional law, huddled with faculty, and engaged in an hour-long conversation with law school dean Michael A. Fitts before about 100 faculty, students, and lawyers.

In that wide-ranging talk Thursday evening, Kennedy touched on subjects as diverse as the impact of corruption in foreign judicial proceedings, the changing practice of law in the United States, and whether American jurists should listen at all to what foreign judges have to say about U.S. law.

The talk was regularly punctuated with humor.

Discussing the impact of America on the rest of the world, he noted that American politics and government are followed closely in other countries, and he cited an example he encountered on vacation in Greece.

"We were walking through a village and there was a group of men arguing very vigorously in front of a taverna," he said. "I asked what they were arguing about, and I was told that they were debating who in the [U.S.] president's cabinet was the most talented.

"Four hours later we walked by and they were arguing still," he said. "I asked what it was about and I was told that they were debating whether the Cyclops was real."

Much of Kennedy's talk, though, was on the serious subject of the U.S. Constitution and its centrality to American life. He said his travels abroad had convinced him nations without functioning legal systems were doomed to failure and decay. But he noted pointedly there was no guarantee the United State's constitutional democracy would prevail.

"Democracy is not on autopilot," he said.

Asked for his views on how the practice of law has changed, Kennedy, who was named to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan and unanimously confirmed, said the profession had opened up to previously excluded groups but suggested it also had come loose from its moral footings.

"I have had CEOs tell me that their lawyers used to be the 'no' person," Kennedy said. "Now lawyers who want to get business say [to CEOs] you can do this and that."

Kennedy said oral arguments often do make a difference in how cases are decided, answering a question often posed by lawyers: Are cases typically decided on the documents submitted, long before the lawyers appear in court?

But then he injected a note of humor.

"If you say, 'yes' [that oral arguments do make a difference], then people say you are being pushed around by lawyers," he said with smile. "If you say no, then, of course, you are engaged in a charade."


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