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Could this be Anthony Kennedy’s last stand on the Supreme Court?

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy speaks to students from McClatchy High School at the Sacramento Federal Courthouse in 2013.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy speaks to students from McClatchy High School at the Sacramento Federal Courthouse in 2013. Sacramento Bee file photo

Supreme Court justice and Sacramento native Anthony Kennedy may hang up his robe for good before his 82nd birthday this summer, if Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller's statements in a speech last week ring true.

In audio obtained by Politico and published Friday, the politically vulnerable Heller told attendees at a private Las Vegas event he expected Kennedy to leave the bench in 2018's first half.

“Kennedy is going to retire around sometime early summer,” Heller said. “Which I’m hoping will get our base a little motivated because right now they’re not very motivated. But I think a new Supreme Court justice will get them motivated.”

It would be difficult to overstate the political ramifications of Kennedy's retirement. A registered Republican appointed by Ronald Reagan and unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate, he has effectively been the swing vote on the nine-member court since Sandra Day O'Connor's 2006 retirement.

Kennedy's retirement would allow President Donald Trump to nominate a more reliably conservative justice in his place, giving Republicans control of the Supreme Court to go with the House, Senate and Oval Office. Heller floated the possibility of Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) as a replacement in his Q&A session with the J. Reuben Clark Law Society last Friday.

There's evidence suggesting Kennedy plans to stick around, though, most notably that he hired four law clerks to start next October. Heller also needs Republican voters' support to fend off primary challenger Danny Tarkanian, and could be angling for votes by proposing a solidly conservative justice from a neighboring state to take Kennedy's seat.

Kennedy grew up in Sacramento and graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1954 before going on to earn degrees from Stanford University and Harvard Law School.

He practiced law in Sacramento from 1963 to 1975, and taught constitutional law at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. The judge celebrated his 30th anniversary on the Supreme Court bench last month.

One of Kennedy's most memorable decisions came in 2015, when he wrote the majority opinion legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the U.S.

In an opinion piece published in The Sacramento Bee last June, UC Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky wrote that replacing Kennedy with a judge in the same mold as Neil Gorsuch, Trump's nomination for the seat vacated by Antonin Scalia's death, would "create the most conservative court that there has been since the mid-1930s."

The Bee's editorial board also urged Kennedy not to retire, arguing his perspective was necessary on issues related to gun laws, same-sex couples and Trump's travel ban.

West Sacramento Mayor Christopher Cabaldon said that he's thrilled for the victory of the same-sex marriage ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, June 26, 2015. "America has evolved. America has changed. The American people support the value

Benjy Egel: (916) 321-1052, begel@sacbee.com

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