From Sacramento to Supreme Court, a personalized look at Justice Kennedy
Justice Anthony Kennedy is arguably the most significant native son in Sacramento history. Before ascending to the highest court in the land, where for 30 years he was one of the most consequential jurists on the bench, Kennedy was born and raised here.
But the Sacramento that shaped him doesn't really exist anymore.
He attended Crocker Elementary School, Cal Middle School and C.K. McClatchy High School. Kennedy practiced law here. He worshiped at Holy Spirit Catholic Church and taught at McGeorge School of Law. He would return each summer and proudly proclaim his allegiance to his home in varied, endearing ways.
In the spring of 2017, Kennedy — an avid baseball fan — invited Dusty Baker to lunch in his chambers at the high court. Baker, then manager of the Washington Nationals, is Sacramento-reared and a former manager of the San Francisco Giants. As if lunch with a U.S. Supreme Court justice weren't enough of a draw, Kennedy communicated to Baker his shared love for Sacramento as a way of connecting with him and sweetening his lunch offer. Baker eagerly accepted. And this was but one example of how Kennedy has always been of Sacramento emotionally and spiritually, even though he is not of Sacramento culturally or politically.
Kennedy, who at 81 announced his retirement Wednesday, grew more conservative than the city that raised him and celebrates him still. But Sacramento has fundamentally changed from the Sacramento that formed Kennedy. That old Sacramento is fading. It was a capital with a more conservative strain. It was more reserved, more homogeneous, more structured by a social pecking order where power, wealth and influence had a home base in the Land Park neighborhoods of Kennedy's youth.
This was Kennedy's world, long before, say, Daniel Hahn became the first African-American police chief in Sacramento last year. It was before women were on the council. It was when the Sutter Club was all male. It was when Sacramento was his world, not yours or mine.
It is hard to imagine that a Republican will be elected to anything in the city of Sacramento ever again. But the exact opposite was true in the Sacramento of Kennedy's youth. Republicans then were like the Republican Kennedy. They were sensible. They were not ideologues. They were not bellicose. They stayed in their own lanes and generally mixed with their own kind.
But Kennedy maintained positive relations, even friendships, with people outside his circle, because that's how it's done in a city where personal relationships remain paramount.
During his Supreme Court confirmation process in late 1987, one of the local character witnesses who spoke on Kennedy's behalf was the late Nathaniel Colley, who was a pioneering African-American lawyer in Sacramento and pivotal figure in the NAACP.
Colley not only spoke for Kennedy, he persuaded civil rights groups not to oppose him. Remember: Kennedy was the third choice of then-President Ronald Reagan. Reagan's first two picks — Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg — had tanked. Reagan was desperate, so Colley did him — and Kennedy — a huge solid by speaking on his behalf.
"Nathaniel Colley, a former Western general counsel for the NAACP, conceded that Kennedy had been 'insensitive' to minority rights in past opinions as a federal judge, but argued that he is not a racist," wrote Ricardo Pimentel in The Bee in December 1987.
"I do not read in his opinions, even the ones where he is wrong, any sign of racism," Colley said after his testimony. "He has been more insensitive than he should have been, but so have most of the white males in America."
Kennedy's charm and their shared love of Sacramento had motivated Colley to speak in favor of Kennedy. But just a year after Kennedy was confirmed in 1988, Colley changed his mind and came to regret helping him.
"This term, Colley said, Kennedy has shown he is 'hostile' to civil rights," Laura Mecoy wrote in The Bee in July 1989.
"I am distressed, disappointed, and I feel betrayed," he said. "I wish I could take it (his endorsement of Kennedy) back. If he were up for confirmation today, I would testify against him."
Other people in Sacramento now also seem to feel this way about Kennedy, even if they are reluctant to say it for publication. More than one person of note said "no comment" or "I'll pass" to me about his retirement announcement.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg said: "Even though I've disagreed with some of his rulings, it's been a real source of pride for Sacramento that one of our own became a justice of the United States Supreme Court."
Kennedy's judicial record is now the fodder for future historians. But in his hometown, he will be the celebrated son of Sacramento whose brilliant legal career made the city proud, even if some of his rulings did not.
The day before he announced his retirement, Kennedy voted with the conservatives to uphold the travel ban proposed by President Donald Trump — a ban intensely criticized for being a ban of Muslim people disguised as policy. Kennedy went along with conservatives on Wednesday's ruling that dealt a crippling blow to labor unions by blocking them from collecting fees from workers who do not want to join them.
That such a key vote against unions was cast by Kennedy, in whose hometown many people — particularly people of color — have found a path to the middle class through union membership is ironic. But again, the union power that has grown in Sacramento in the last 30 years is not, or was not, a part of the Sacramento that formed Kennedy.
Kennedy's record was not a secret, of course. He was criticized harshly during his Supreme Court nomination for not writing an opinion as an appellate judge that the state of Washington didn't need to pay men and women equally for comparable jobs.
He also wrote that Latinos in San Fernando had not proved that "at-large" elections had violated their constitutional rights. Remember? When Sacramento had at-large elections, the council was packed with members from Land Park. In that last 30 years, the replacement of at-large elections with district elections has resulted in an influx of minority elected officials.
As a Supreme Court justice, he was not always predictable. He wrote, for example, the court's 2015 opinion establishing the right of gay people to marry.
So maybe one day Sacramentans will rue the day Kennedy chose to retire, when the president was Trump. Now Trump gets to choose his successor. He wants to "make America great again," which could be a way of describing the Sacramento of Kennedy's youth.