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Justice conveys Court’s modern role

NICOLE MICHELS | Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Though the federal government has shut down, Notre Dame students studying in Washington, D.C. listened to Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy speak about the Court’s role in contemporary U.S. politics at a University of California, D.C. (UCDC) event Monday.

Before the event, students submitted questions for Kennedy via a Google Doc for pre-approval by the planning committee. Students were told they would be able to ask unscripted questions later in the program if the committee did not select their submissions.

Junior Nicole Sganga said time constraints prevented the Notre Dame students from asking a question, though she wanted to ask him about civic discourse in the United States. 

“I was aching to ask Justice Kennedy his position on the current state of civic discourse,” she said. “Luckily, the moderator sneaked in a question regarding the current state of American politics toward the end of the Q & A. Justice Kennedy responded with an eloquent plea for a higher discourse founded on fact and reason [addressed to] his counterparts in the executive and legislative branches.”

Junior Szymon Barnas said he hoped to ask Kennedy to elaborate on his description of the Supreme Court’s place in contemporary U.S. politics.

“Justice Kennedy has been on the speaking circuit the past couple of weeks and has commented many times on the Supreme Court becoming an arena to settle the hot-button political issues of the day because of our dysfunctional democracy,” Barnas said. “As I read about the cases on the docket for this upcoming Supreme Court term regarding issues like campaign contributions, public prayer and affirmative action, I felt that Justice Kennedy’s description of the Court was all the more accurate and hoped he would comment with some thoughts on the upcoming term.” 

Barnas said he was impressed by Kennedy’s forthright answers and engaging speaking presence. 

“Justice Kennedy gave very forthright and though-provoking answers,” Barnas said. “I found his observations on what it takes to be a good judge and how the Court is affect by cultural pressures to be very insightful. I enjoyed his thoughts on the Court’s role in democracy. Kennedy said laws and the Supreme Court are really a ‘narrative of our moral sense’ and that ‘injustice is really hard to see in the present.’ 

“As a student who is thinking about attending law school, these observations really made me consider the interplay between justice, equality and the rule of law, [as well as] the more noble responsibilities of lawyers and judges.”

Sganga said Kennedy’s remarks on the current government shutdown resonated with her.

“When addressing politics, Justice Kennedy was very careful not to criticize or weigh in too much on the current state of the administration and Congress,” Sganga said. “He mentioned earlier that he is not a political man. However, he did say this much, [loosely] paraphrased, ‘Right now the whole world is watching the United States amid this government shutdown. And for half of them, the jury is still out on democracy. The way we conduct ourselves is a reflection on the nature of our governmental institution.'”

Sganga said before she attended the event, she was excited by the prospect of seeing Kennedy speak because of the essential role he played in recent Court decisions. 

“I’ve done some research on Justice Kennedy and even read a few of the decisions on gay rights and marriage that he had authored,” Sganga said. “Going into the presentation, I knew he was the swing vote. So, I figured it would be interesting to hear from a justice with such a large sway.”

Sganga said she felt Kennedy connected with the students on a personal level.

“Here was a man with so many experiences, so much wisdom, and so much say in how our government operates. Yet, he was funny, witty and even charming,” Sganga said. “He had a way of making the students he spoke to feel comfortable and at ease. … He came across as just so thoughtful and well spoken, as if he had really reflected upon each word he communicated. 

“I guess that’s what you would like to hear about a Supreme Court Justice, but it also made me wish that more politicians in Washington, D.C. acted and spoke with the same care.”

Kennedy’s talk was the highlight among other experiences she had with the Supreme Court while in Washington, D.C. this semester, Sganga said.

“On Sunday, I attended Red Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral down the street and was lucky enough to sit through the same service as Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan,” Sganga said. “It was the icing on the cake to hear from Justice Kennedy the next day. Six Supreme Court justices in one week – not bad. Our class visited the Supreme Court a few weeks ago. … A few of us vowed to return now that the court is in session, we would love to observe an oral argument in person.”

Barnas said even among the Notre Dame in Washington Program’s various meetings with influential individuals in national politics, Kennedy’s talk stood out as a “surreal experience.”

“A valuable part of the D.C. Program is meeting with individuals who have a big impact in the public policy arena, ranging from senators, to lobbyists, to White House officials and now a Supreme Court Justice. I want to find out what inspires and informs these people and how I should strive to be in their place in the future,” Barnas said. “Justice Kennedy is often seen as having a very powerful position on the Court as the ‘swing justice’ and many upcoming decisions will be contingent upon his interpretation of the Constitution and Court precedents.”