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A Supreme Reunion

A view from the bench

Anthony M. Kennedy and Elena Kagan

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Elena Kagan at Harvard Law School, April 9, 2011

Harvard Law School Spring Reunions this year brought back a record number of alumni, nearly 800. Among them were U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justices Anthony M. Kennedy ’61 and Elena Kagan ’86, the law school’s former dean. During the April weekend, Kennedy was presented with the Harvard Law School Association Award. He and Kagan then participated in a conversation—in front of a packed room—moderated by Dean Martha Minow. The two justices shared personal stories and offered a rare glimpse into the Court’s very private world.

As junior justice on the high court, Kagan—known for her sense of humor—noted she has several responsibilities, including taking notes in conferences, since there are no outside parties present, and answering the door, which she is forced to do frequently since a number of justices—with the exception of Kennedy, she emphasized—had the habit of leaving their eyeglasses, cups of coffee and other items in their offices, necessitating frequent interruptions by staff. The two tasks get in the way of each other, she joked, since the interruptions at the door interfere with the note-taking. Kagan added—to loud laughter from the audience—that she also serves on the high court’s cafeteria committee. Just as she was known as HLS’s “coffee dean” for having instituted free coffee for students, she expected her legacy on the Court to include the title of “frozen yogurt justice.”

The junior justice is always the last to speak during conferences, Kennedy said, and when he was in that position he decided he would be more effective if he stood up while sharing his analysis of cases with his brethren. Before he had a chance to try it out, fate fortunately intervened: He was walking with Justice William J. Brennan Jr. ’31 to a conference when Brennan recalled that Justice Felix Frankfurter LL.B. 1906 would stand and lecture during conferences, which Brennan found annoying. Kennedy, of course, decided to stay seated.

Even when more serious topics were addressed during the hour-plus discussion, the tone remained intimate and lighthearted, as Minow and then alumni posed questions to Kennedy and Kagan. Noting the controversial nature of the question, Minow asked whether the laws of other nations should be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court, something for which Kennedy has been criticized by certain groups. To loud applause from the audience, Kennedy said there was a certain Know-Nothing aspect to this criticism, and argued that a scientist would not be reviled for referring to relevant scientific studies from other countries. While the laws of other jurisdictions are not binding, he emphasized, they can serve a useful purpose in examining approaches to legal problems.

Responding to a question posed by an audience member about the glass ceiling for professional women, Kagan said the Court, now with three female justices, does not seem to have such a constraint, and said that former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had made a similar observation when visiting the Court this year.

—Excerpted from a story by Elaine McArdle. Read the entire article.

Anthony M. Kennedy with Sharon E. Jones and Martha Minow

An ‘extraordinary and influential’ justice

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy ’61 received the Harvard Law School Association Award, established in 1992 to honor alumni who have shown exemplary service to the legal profession, society and HLS. President Sharon E. Jones ’82 (center) presented the award with HLS Dean Martha Minow during Spring Reunions Weekend.


Next: Profile: Leonard F. Joy ’56