On Wednesday night, Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the deciding vote on the Supreme Court, delivered a lecture at The Heritage Foundation on the beauty of the Constitution—every Supreme Court justice’s favorite topic. In the course of the discussion he dropped asides about the dearth of civic knowledge among Americans, the danger of moral relativism, and the degradation of the political sphere since America’s founding.
Kennedy dwelled on the wonder of the 1787 Philadelphia convention that created the Constitution.
“Statesmen—and there were statesmen in those days—kept their word,” he said. “There was never a golden age of political debate. It was always rancorous … but we must pay more attention to making it more principled, thoughtful, decent.”
Even when Kennedy was growing up, he said, “Public service was a high calling.”
The 76-year-old justice quietly lobbed a grenade at the current generation in politics. “Each generation is a trustee to the next,” Kennedy said. “Trustees don’t grab all the assets for themselves.”
He also described a troubling trend of “moral relativism” in America: “Relativism leads to skepticism, skepticism leads to cynicism, and cynicism is corrosive to basic human values.”
Kennedy said people might accuse the court of moral relativism because the justices have ruled, for example, that videos of people crushing small animals are constitutional. “The Supreme Court is saying, ‘It’s not for the government to decide this,’” he explained. “This is for the people … to debate ideas about what is good, what is bad, what is right, what is wrong.”
Kennedy put the moral burden on teachers. “If you have moral relativism as the public philosophy, you have a problem with telling the importance of our heritage,” he said. “Teachers are reluctant to say someone was good, a hero. That an event doesn’t have an ethical and spiritual quality. Everything’s the same. The result is that young people are discouraged.”
That discouragement, he argued, has translated to a lack of knowledge in the United States about American history. He described meeting a group of first-year university students in Poland who asked him a series of well-informed questions about the Supreme Court. He asked how they knew so much about the United States. They told him that because their constitutional democracy is so new, “We’ve been studying your constitutional history since the fourth grade.”
“You cannot defend what you do not know,” Kennedy told his American audience.
The nine justices don’t do a lot of talking out of the courtroom. The court is supposed to be a branch that avoids politics and so the justices try to avoid the media. They’re very careful, when they do speak publicly, to avoid any reference to current cases. When someone asked Kennedy what case has been the most difficult for him as a justice, he said, “The one I’m working on now.”
The court, whose new term started at the beginning of the month, hasn’t heard any oral arguments in the last two weeks. Kennedy commented toward the end of his discussion that he thought the court could handle more cases per year than it does currently.