Much of the media coverage surrounding U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement has focused on how and when his soon-to-be-vacant seat should be filled, but the 81-year-old jurist’s announcement that he would be stepping down after three decades on the court also raises a number of thorny legal questions. Justice Kennedy was widely viewed as a reliable conservative when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to replace Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1988, but he has provided a crucial liberal vote in a number of important recent Supreme Court decisions.
This has progressive groups worried as President Trump has said that Justice Kennedy’s successor will be selected from a list of 25 names vetted and approved by a group of conservative legal activists. Pro-life and pro-choice organizations were especially vocal in the days following Justice Kennedy’s announcement as several cases dealing with abortion rights, and laws that have been passed in several states to restrict them, are likely to be argued before the Supreme Court in the years ahead.
However, advocacy groups both liberal and conservative may be wise to remember that the voting records of Supreme Court justices rarely follow strict ideological lines. While Justice Kennedy provided a key vote to protect abortion rights in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, he also voted to restrict these rights in cases including Hodgson v. Minnesota and Gonzales v. Carhart.
Justice Kennedy has long been admired by the LGBT community for his stance on gay rights, and he became one of their heroes in 2015 when he penned the majority opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges, which was the case that gave same-sex couples the right to marry. However, his voting record on other liberal hot-button issues is not quite as progressive. He voted to strike down a Washington, D.C. handgun ban in the 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller, and he wrote the majority opinion in the 2009 case Coeur Alaska, Inc. v. Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, which allowed an Alaskan mining company to use a technique that environmentalists said would flood a large area with contaminated water.
Some Americans see lifetime appointments and the power to make law as unusual in a democracy, but the judicial branch has provided a robust defense against government overreach. The Supreme Court has been dominated by either conservatives or liberals many times during its 229 year history, but the nation has never fallen victim to the extreme versions of these ideologies as a result.