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What's Next For Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The reason there's a vacancy on the Supreme Court is the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, effective today. President Ronald Reagan appointed Kennedy to the bench in 1988, and he went on to occupy an ideological middle ground. Kennedy gave some hints about what he might focus on in retirement at the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference in Anaheim, Calif., last Thursday.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

He danced around whether he'd write a book, saying he's more used to public speaking. The event was broadcast on C-SPAN. And it gave a small glimpse into how he thinks of his past and his priorities for the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTHONY KENNEDY: Penal reform, I think it's a - very high on my agenda of things to do. I think solitary confinement is wrong, and our sentences in this country are eight times longer than sentences for the comparative crimes in England and western Europe. So we must always think about improving the rule of law.

CORNISH: He also spoke about the U.S. relationship with Europe right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: It's of great concern to me that we seem to be drifting away from Europe. We can't be an island to ourself.

CORNISH: Justice Kennedy also told stories about his life before practicing law. He spoke about working summers as a teenager with his uncle, who was in the oil business.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: In the oil fields, they have what they call a dog house. And that's a tool shed. And they had the studs up, and they wanted me to nail the siding up. And I had on my gloves and my new hat and my overalls. About 10 o'clock, the tool pusher - the head - the foreman came over. And I going to - I said, I'm going to show this guy I can really nail. And I nailed my glove into the wall.

(LAUGHTER)

KENNEDY: And I couldn't get it off.

CHANG: When the justice turned to his time on the bench, he stressed the importance of not having preconceived notions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: The judge should always ask himself or ask herself, why am I about to do what I'm about to do? What is the principle?

CHANG: And above all, he cited the significance of law.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KENNEDY: It's a promise of liberty. It's a promise of freedom. It's a promise that we can plan our own destiny. And that's what we do as lawyers. That's what we do as judges. That's what we do at this conference. And I congratulate you for being here. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: After that, Justice Kennedy quickly left the stage, and the audience at the Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference gave him a standing ovation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "FRANKLIN AVENUE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 31, 2018 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web introduction incorrectly said Justice Anthony Kennedy was planning to attend the conference. He had attended last week.