U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy (podium right) with UCDC Law Program students
and director Nicole Lehtman (left).
By Andrew Cohen
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy recently met with 11 Berkeley Law students on the opening day of the Court’s new term. The students are part of the UCDC Law Program, a semester-long externship initiative in Washington, D.C.
Kennedy first addressed a group of more than 200 University of California undergraduate and law school students. After that, he met separately for about 40 minutes with just the UCDC law students and a few students from Columbia Law School, taking questions and discussing topics such as same-sex marriage, judicial nominations, and diversity on the bench. Jess Bravin ’97, who covers the Supreme Court for the Wall Street Journal, arranged and moderated the event.
Kennedy reportedly expressed surprise that the issue of same-sex marriage reached the Supreme Court so quickly, affirmed his support for a three-year law school curriculum, and bemoaned the lack of helpful law review articles.
“He was down-to-earth, unintimidating, and endearing—all adjectives I never thought I’d use to describe a Supreme Court Justice,” Berkeley Law student Kimya Saied ’14 said. Classmate Juan Carlos Sanchez ’14 was “impressed by Justice Kennedy’s candor and charm” and said he “worked the room with the ease, more like a seasoned politician than a federal judge.”
The UCDC Law Program combines full-time Washington field placements with a weekly seminar, enabling law students to learn how federal statutes, regulations, and policies are made, changed, and understood. Saied conducts legal writing and research in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Gang Section, helping department lawyers prepare for trial. Sanchez works at the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement, assisting investigations, civil suit prosecutions, and negotiation settlements.
Kennedy’s visit marked the third time in two years that UCDC law students had the opportunity to meet a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. They held court with Justice Stephen Breyer in 2012 and Justice Antonin Scalia earlier this year.
Honesty and humility
Sanchez said Kennedy told the students that the nature of injustice is that “you often can’t see it in your own times.” Citing the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education as an example, he recalled mistakenly thinking that “injustice is over; no more discrimination.”
Sanchez found that insight “unexpectedly revealing, especially coming from someone who is often the swing vote in today’s most contentious civil rights matters.”
Saied was surprised to hear that Kennedy often looks to certain law professors’ blogs when assessing an issue, and that “the availability of information online is transforming how Supreme Court justices approach their case research.”
Kennedy lamented that judicial nominations are becoming too politicized, making it increasingly difficult to recruit quality judges. Citing how potential federal district judges are often asked about the right to life, he reportedly said “I don’t think it makes any difference what the district judge thinks about the right to life—he’s not going to decide it, anyway.”
Kennedy also expressed concern about the effect of political infighting on government efficiency, emphasizing how strongly our governmental branches rely on each other. “Not just across the federal government, but also between state law enforcement and federal prosecutors,” Saied said.
Other revelations were lighter-hearted, such as Kennedy confessing that his children and grandchildren call him a “cultural dinosaur.” Exhibit A: While shopping over the winter holidays last year, he overheard someone say, ‘What was Lady Gaga talking about?’ Kennedy remarked, ‘That’s not a nice thing to call that woman.’”