Justice Anthony Kennedy | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Law

Anthony McLeod Kennedy was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1988 until his retirement in 2018.  He tended to vote as a centrist and often was the deciding vote.

Anthony McLeod Kennedy is a renowned figure in the American legal system. He served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, for thirty years. Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1988, Kennedy became known as a centrist, meaning his votes and opinions often fell in the middle of the political spectrum.

Kennedy’s Early Life and Education

Born in 1936 in Sacramento, California, Kennedy’s interest in law began at a young age. His father was a prominent attorney, and he spent much of his youth discussing legal matters around the dinner table. Following high school, he attended Stanford University and then Harvard Law School, earning his law degree in 1961.

Kennedy’s Path to the Supreme Court

After law school, Kennedy followed in his father’s footsteps and began practicing law in San Francisco. He quickly gained a reputation for his sharp legal mind. Kennedy’s journey to the Supreme Court began when President Gerald Ford appointed him to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 1975. There, he served as a federal judge for over a decade, gaining valuable experience and further establishing his reputation.

Appointment to the Supreme Court

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Kennedy to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed his nomination in 1988, and he took his place as an Associate Justice. At the Supreme Court, Kennedy often found himself in a unique position. The Court was roughly balanced between conservative and liberal justices, with Kennedy usually in the middle.

Kennedy’s Role as a Swing Vote

Kennedy’s centrist views often made him the “swing vote” in many critical cases. A swing vote is a decisive vote when there’s a near-even split among the other justices. Because of this, his vote carried significant weight and often determined the outcome of landmark cases.

Kennedy’s Legacy

Kennedy’s time on the Supreme Court significantly impacted American law. He authored many influential opinions, carefully considering both sides of each case. He had a talent for finding common ground between competing legal theories. His decisions often reflected a balance of individual rights with the interests of the government.

He retired from the Supreme Court in 2018. Despite his retirement, his legal opinions and decisions continue to shape American jurisprudence.


In summary, Anthony McLeod Kennedy served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court for thirty years. His centrist approach to decision-making often made him the pivotal swing vote in many important cases. Through his balanced and fair interpretations of the law, Kennedy left an indelible mark on the U.S. legal system. His legacy continues to influence the interpretation and application of law in America, underscoring the importance of his three decades of service on the Supreme Court.

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Last Modified: 05/28/2023

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