U. S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy arrived in his native Sacramento Tuesday with education uppermost in his mind.
"A democracy is only as strong as you make it, and you can't make it strong unless you know its history," he told high school students today while interacting with them at the federal courthouse.
In a conversation earlier at his hotel, he said he believes everyone, old and young alike and including the interviewer, should take a college course in the Constitution.
"Everybody should know how this wonderful idea unfolded over time," he said.
Kennedy is here for Thursday's dedication of the courthouse's library and brand new learning center in his name, a reflection of his keen interest in teaching young people about government, the law and civic responsibility.
The tall, trim, balding justice is now 76, but a quick step, ruddy complexion and eager, genial manner leave the impression of a much younger man.
He emerged from his hotel room in a dark suit and carrying a laptop case, a raincoat and a white box, which turned out to be full of his trademark bookmarks that he wanted passed out to the students.
On one side is a photo of the American flag that flies outside the Supreme Court building. The photo frames the Old Glory between two of the building's majestic columns. On the other side is Kennedy's own definition of "The Rule of Law," which has been adopted by the United Nations as its definition.
The justice is also a supreme raconteur.
Sitting in the quiet of a not-yet-open restaurant off the hotel's lobby, he responded to questions and talked of old times in Sacramento, where he was born, grew up and practiced law until his appointment to the 9th U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
On the ride to the courthouse, he pointed out various locations to which he had connections and for which he has memories. He admits that, despite his quarter of a century on the high court, he thinks of Sacramento as home.
As a moderate conservative, and with the polarization of the nine-member court - four conservatives and four liberals - Kennedy has become the so-called "swing vote," and has been described by a number of legal scholars and some in the media as "the most powerful individual in America."
He scoffs at the notion.
"Each of us has one vote," he stressed. "I don't like the 'swing vote' label. It raises a visual image of spatial gyrations. Each case is different and swings from one set of facts to another. But I don't swing.
"Certainly there are differences among us. It is a process, and we all bring our interpretations of the law to the factual scenarios."
He said the framers left a broad outline in the Constitution that has stood the test of time. "It's just a matter of applying it."
Some court observers see Kennedy as less conservative than he was in his early years on the court.
"I really don't think in those terms," he said.
"I dislike being typed with the label. It is really unfortunate.
"So many of our decisions are viewed through a political matrix," he acknowledged, "and I think that too is unfortunate."
Unlike some colleagues, Kennedy does not talk publicly about cases that have been, are currently or will be before the court.
"We have a tradition of not telling each other what to do," he said. "But I believe it's unfair to the lawyers."