Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh stressed judicial independence and “allegiance to the Constitution” in his first major appearance outside of Washington since his contentious confirmation last October.
Speaking at a conference of judges and lawyers in Milwaukee on Monday night, Kavanaugh also declared, “It’s important for judges not be in a bubble.”
Kavanaugh appeared on stage in a hotel ballroom with his predecessor, retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist conservative who often cast the decisive vote on the high court, including to declare a right to same-sex marriage, uphold university affirmative action and preserve abortion rights.
Kavanaugh, who proved himself a far more conservative jurist on a lower appeals court for 12 years, could become the new key vote to begin dismantling Kennedy’s social policy legacy.
But there was no talk of such consequences on Monday night. Rather, the 45-minute conversation at the Seventh Circuit bar and judicial conference touched on broader judicial themes, with friendly banter throughout.
It was Kavanaugh’s first visit to the area since becoming the “circuit justice” for the Seventh circuit, which covers Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. (Chief Justice John Roberts assigns individual justices to the regional circuits, largely to handle emergency petitions.)
The two justices responded to questions from US Appeals Court Judge Diane Wood, chief judge of the Seventh Circuit, and from US District Court Judge Gary Feinerman of the Northern District of Illinois.
Kavanaugh and Feinerman were law clerks to Kennedy, during the 1993-94 Supreme Court session.
In response to a question from Wood, Kennedy and Kavanaugh agreed with Roberts’ admonition, “We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges.” Roberts had issued that statement last November in rebuke to President Donald Trump and the suggestion that judges automatically side in disputes with the interests of the presidents who appointed them.
“We owe our allegiance to the Constitution,” Kavanaugh told the audience as he pulled a small booklet copy of the US Constitution from his jacket pocket. He said it was the copy he first had as a law clerk to Kennedy in the 1990s and was signed by the retired justice.
Kennedy seemed more relaxed than he had in his final months on the bench. Kavanaugh, directly to Kennedy’s right, appeared slightly less at ease as the four jurists sat in beige upholstered chairs on an elevated platform before the dinner audience of 500.
Kavanaugh, 54, referred to Kennedy’s emphasis on civility in dealing his court colleagues and the lawyers who argued before him. Kavanaugh said he often asked himself, when writing an opinion or posing a question at oral arguments, “What would Justice Kennedy do?” He also said he wanted to live up to Kennedy’s larger contribution to constitutional liberty.
For his part, the 82-year-old retired justice stuck to his familiar themes of civic responsibility and thoughtful discourse, quoting Plato and Aristotle.
During Senate action on his nomination last September and October, Kavanaugh faced heated Democratic opposition and public protests, largely because of claims from Palo Alto University Professor Christine Blasey Ford that he had sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in Maryland.
Kavanaugh emphatically denied the allegations, and he was narrowly confirmed by the Senate on October 6.
His appointment still stirs controversy, including at George Mason University, where some students this spring protested his hiring for a summer law school class.
The Seventh Circuit audience applauded Kavanaugh, like Kennedy, Monday night, and the newest justice was scheduled to remain in Milwaukee on Tuesday for continued legal and social activities.