Professor pens first book on Supreme Court Justice Kennedy

Helen Knowles with bookHelen Knowles of SUNY Oswego’s political science faculty has penned the first full-length book on Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whom she terms a complex and controversial figure who defies traditional categorization.

In “The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty,” Knowles explains that he does not fall into the simplistic common view that judges are either “liberal” or “conservative” depending on who supports or opposes their decisions.

“He’s managed to please some people all of the time and displease some of the people all of the time,” Knowles said. “But it’s not generally the same people.”

Observers looking to categorize judges as conservatives or liberals would be baffled over Kennedy striking down laws against same-sex marriage on the one hand while opposing affirmative action programs on the other. But Knowles said this is all consistent under what she calls Kennedy’s “moderate libertarian” views, although “at no point in the book do I call him a libertarian.”

Instead, Kennedy’s decisions usually follow three key principles: human dignity, personal responsibility and tolerance. Under the human dignity belief, she explained, Kennedy believes all individuals should be treated equally—thus his opposition to programs that favor anyone—and his belief in tolerance means he does not support people being punished for their sexual orientation.

“He would stand up for your rights even if you’re doing something some others may find offensive,” she said, using as an example Kennedy’s writing a concurring Supreme Court opinion nixing a Texas law that had outlawed burning an American flag.

Knowles admitted that Kennedy’s decision-making and opinion-writing abilities were two of the things that drew her to study his work, including for her doctoral thesis.

She said she agrees with reviewer Mark Tushnet of the Harvard Law School who called her book a “sympathetic but not uncritical” view of Kennedy, because it does take issue with some of his decisions.

Overall, however, she said she finds his decisions consistent within his key principles and admires his undying commitment to education and the law.

“He is very strongly committed to civic education,” Knowles noted. “A lot of his views are related to supporting diversity, educating people and encouraging people to be educated citizens. That’s where the personal responsibility part of his beliefs comes in.”

Knowles said she hopes her book will become part of a body of work that will help the public better understand Kennedy as well as the process by which the Supreme Court and other judges interpret law and make decisions.

“Although this is the first book about Kennedy, I hope it’s not the last,” Knowles said. “I hope there are books that come out and challenge my ideas. I think Kennedy would enjoy that. He cares most about creating this dialogue about liberty and freedom.”

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CONTACT: Dr. Helen Knowles, knowles@oswego.edu

(Posted: Feb 18, 2009)

Tags: research news: books and publications