The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion There was one unifying theme of Anthony Kennedy’s jurisprudence

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2015. (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg)

As you would expect from documents meant to codify lofty ideals, constitutions around the world make repeated reference to “dignity.”

Article 1 of the German Basic Law decrees: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” The Polish Constitution guarantees “the inherent and inalienable dignity of the person” under Article 30. South Africa: “Everyone has inherent dignity and the right to have their dignity respected and protected.”

The U.S. Constitution, by contrast, has 7,591 words including its 27 amendments , none of which is “dignity.”

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy penciled it in. Not literally: The 230-year-old charter can be amended only as provided for in Article V. Supreme Court constitutional rulings often have the same effect, however, and Kennedy’s most important ones redefined rights in terms of protecting the “dignity” of some person or group. This was the unifying theme of his jurisprudence, and it determined his impact on the court.

Why is the death penalty unconstitutional for those under 18? “By protecting even those convicted of heinous crimes, the Eighth Amendment reaffirms the duty of the government to respect the dignity of all persons,” Kennedy wrote in Roper v. Simmons 13 years ago.

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Why did he disappoint conservatives by not overturning Roe v. Wade in a key 1992 case? Abortion involved “choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.”

Why did bans on same-sex marriage have to fall? “There is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” he wrote in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

This drove his colleague Antonin Scalia crazy; Scalia thought the justices should parse the text of the Constitution as originally intended, not ponder self-esteem. He rained scorn on Kennedy but, alas for Scalia, mostly in dissenting opinions.

Kennedy was more in tune with the times: the perfect justice for a prosperous and settled nation whose citizens increasingly expected government to promote not just “the general welfare,” as the Constitution’s preamble promised, but their personal fulfillment. The country had ascended — “matured,” as Kennedy often put it — from its rough and rugged origins.

He grasped that, in modern America, an old concept from defamation and invasion of privacy law — “dignitary harm” — could be imported into constitutional law, and that much or most of the public would approve.

He did so in the spirit of his family’s friend from Sacramento, Chief Justice Earl Warren, who struck down “separate but equal” public schools just as Kennedy was about to graduate from C.K. McClatchy High School in 1954; for black students, Warren wrote, it “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

Scalia had a point, however. “Dignity” is a “you-know-it-when-you-see-it” intangible, not a measurable standard. Liberals cheered Kennedy’s invocation of dignity on gay rights and the death penalty; they lamented his 1999 ruling that state employees could not sue Maine in a state court for violating federal labor standards because the Constitution protected states against such an “indignity.”

The Kennedyesque phrase “the equal dignity owed to each voter” showed up in the court’s unsigned 2000 opinion rationalizing a halt to the Florida recount and effectively awarding George W. Bush the presidency.

Kennedy voted to exempt the closely held Hobby Lobby corporation from a contraceptive insurance mandate under Obamacare because its owners’ right to the free exercise of their Christian religion was “essential in preserving their own dignity.”

Anyone who observed Kennedy at oral argument or heard him lecture knew that this concern with dignity flowed from somewhere deep inside. He was decorous and high-minded almost to a fault; he even used the pompous old phrase “your excellency” to refer to a state governor.

Yet he was in earnest; you had to admire how doggedly he tried to constitutionalize respect, despite Scalia’s taunts and the inherent difficulties of the task.

In his final term, he came up against a case that illustrated just how difficult. Confronted with a baker whose sincere religious beliefs precluded serving a gay wedding, Kennedy found himself unable, quite, to settle the impasse.

At issue were claims of dignity rights that Kennedy had strongly endorsed in separate contexts but that were mutually exclusive when pitted against each other in the same case. His past rulings offered no good criteria by which to break the tie.

He wrote an opinion backing the cake baker, essentially because the bureaucracy had not ordered him to serve the gay couple sufficiently respectfully. He left open what should happen when, inevitably, the court confronts a different iteration of the same issue.

That is, he spent 30 years on the court asking government to treat citizens with dignity and citizens to respect one another, yet even he could not quite identify a certain template for doing so — just when we really need one. And then he retired.

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Read more:

Joshua Matz: The Supreme Court will now fall to chaos

Ilya Shapiro: Justice Kennedy has harmed the rule of law

Jack Goldsmith: The future of U.S. constitutional law is entirely up for grabs

George F. Will: For the first time, conservatives might thank God for Kennedy