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Justice Kennedy holds court in school

Kennedy tells students: "There's a time for debate and a time for consensus. There's a time for advocacy and time for first principles."  

By Terry Frieden
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy engaged in a sometimes lively hour-long exchange Monday with high school seniors about the nation's fundamental rights in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

The session at a magnet school in Washington provided a rare look at a sitting Supreme Court justice offering unscripted comments in a public session with independent-minded students.

Kennedy said he hopes it was the first of many such exchanges between students and lawyers.

Kennedy's brainchild, called "Dialogue on Freedom," is sponsored by the American Bar Association, which hopes to enlist judges and attorneys from coast to coast to visit classrooms and help students understand the values of democracy and the rule of law.

Kennedy said he and his family were deeply moved by the September 11 attacks.

"This was an attack on the rule of law," Kennedy told reporters Friday. He said he devised the program in part because he had read disturbing accounts of some students who appeared to be unmoved by the terrorist attacks.

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In the classroom Monday, Kennedy pressed the theme of absolute and universal right and wrong.

"This is not a project to debate current issues such as military tribunals and cameras in courtrooms," the associate justice told the students. "There's a time for debate and a time for consensus. There's a time for advocacy and time for first principles."

Kennedy called on the nation's lawyers to put debate aside for the benefit of students who must understand their nation's purpose.

"What's our nation's mission," Kennedy challenged the students.

"It is for us to live our lives in peace and to govern people fairly and properly," replied one student.

"Your purpose is going to change as the people change," offered a second student, whose answer seemed at odds with Kennedy's view of inalienable rights and unalterable truths.

"We can't just throw away our Constitution, can we?" Kennedy asked.

"Well, we could, but we shouldn't," the student responded.

Kennedy is one of the five conservative-leaning justices who often control the high court's decision, and who ended the presidential election recount battle in favor of George W. Bush.

Kennedy was joined at the event by first lady Laura Bush, who strongly applauded the school initiative.

"It gave us a chance to reassess what our country stands for, what our freedoms mean and what our responsibility is," she told the seniors from the "School Without Walls" magnet school on the steps of George Washington University in the nation's capital.

Kennedy engaged in a lively exchange with the students.  

The diverse group of more than 20 college-bound students repeatedly focused on civil rights issues and international understanding.

In a hypothetical scenario, Kennedy asked how they could help a skeptical woman from the fictional island state of Quest understand the value of U.S. freedoms and culture.

"It is equally important that America understands the values in Quest," a student responded.

Kennedy has scheduled a second session Friday with students in New York City. He also plans to promote his program before a bar association meeting Thursday in Philadelphia.


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