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Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for Anthony M. Kennedy as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States

February 18, 1988

The President. Mr. Chief Justice, members of the Court, and ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the White House, and thank you for coming to witness this historic occasion. This ceremony is the culmination of our constitutional process, which involves each of the three branches of government. I've had the honor of nominating Judge Kennedy to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The Senate has confirmed my nomination, and I now ask that Chief Justice William Rehnquist administer the constitutional oath of office to Judge Kennedy.

Chief Justice Rehnquist. Thank you, Mr. President. Before I administer the oath, let me say on behalf of my colleagues and all of us how grateful we are to you for having this very fine ceremony in the White House. We appreciate it.

[At this point, Justice Kennedy was sworn in.]

Justice Kennedy. Mr. President and Mrs. Reagan, Chief Justice and Mrs. Rehnquist, distinguished and esteemed guests and friends: My family joins me, Mr. President, in again expressing our deep appreciation for the confidence and the trust that you've reposed in us. And we thank you, Mr. President, and we thank you, Mr. Chief Justice, for this gracious reception and for the warm welcome you've given us to the Court and to this city. We feel very much at home here. It is a singular privilege to succeed to the place left by Justice Powell, who served the Court and the country with such wisdom and distinction.

In this year, the bicentennial, it is appropriate to-recognize an essential truth, and that is that the Constitution of the United States is the single fact, the single reality, the single idea, the single moral principle that sets the United States apart from other nations, now and throughout history. I shall honor the Constitution. And at this gracious assembly and ceremony, it is appropriate to note also that the Presidency, the Congress, and the courts are committed to the Constitution and to the rule of law and to the heritage of freedom.

Thank you very much.

The President. Mr. Chief Justice and members of the Court, ladies and gentlemen, almost 200 years ago, President Washington sent a letter inviting five men to become the first Associate Justices of the United States Supreme Court. In that letter, Washington wrote: "Considering the judicial system as the chief pillar upon which our National Government must rest, I have thought it my duty to nominate such men as I conceived would give dignity and luster to our national character."

Well, we gather here today to welcome as the newest Associate Justice of the Supreme Court a man I've known and respected for more than a decade and who, like those Washington nominated, will give dignity and luster to our national character: Anthony M. Kennedy.

Judge and now Justice Kennedy—sounds good, doesn't it— [laughter] —takes a distinguished seat on the High Bench. It was first held by one of those initial Washington appointees: John Rutledge. A century and a half later, Hugo Black filled it. And for more than a decade, it has been graced with the service of one of the great gentlemen of the American judiciary, a Justice widely acclaimed for his decency and fairness: Justice Lewis Powell.

Like his distinguished predecessor, Justice Kennedy's career has been marked by his devotion to a simple, straightforward, and enduring principle: that we are a government of laws, not of men. Our Constitution, our form of government, is built on a bedrock value: self-government, yes, but self-government with a purpose—which is individual liberty.

We often say that to preserve liberty the Bill of Rights was added after ratification, but we should not forget that the framers in Philadelphia didn't put a Bill of Rights in their original document, because they believed that the system they'd constructed-with all its cheeks and balances and its restrictions on the Federal Government's powers—was a sufficient safeguard of freedom. This system was their answer to what they saw as, and what was, an almost impossible dilemma.

The framers had gone to Philadelphia with a clear mandate to, as the Annapolis convention had instructed, "render the Constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union"-which was to say, to give it the power to tax, to regulate interstate commerce, and to raise an army and navy to defend the Nation. The absence of these powers under the Articles of the Confederation had led to trade wars among the States, local rebellions, international humiliation, the exhaustion of the Government's finances, and the ruin of the economy.

The question the framers asked was: How can the central government receive the power to govern without also receiving the power to oppress? Their answer, as we know: Define and divide power. The National Government got only so much, the States and the people kept the rest. And what the Federal authorities received, the framers distributed, some to the legislature-and in fact, some to one House and some to the other and some to the entire legislature—then some to the executive and some to the judiciary.

As Hamilton noted, the judiciary—I had trouble with that, didn't I?— [laughter] —the judiciary they created was the "least dangerous" branch because it had "neither force nor will, but merely judgment." And, yes, the Convention did discuss giving judges more expansive powers. There was a move to establish a so-called council of revision, a panel drawn from the courts that could veto legislation because it was dumb or distasteful, whether or not it was constitutional-I'm the only one that can do it because it's dumb and distasteful—[laughter ]. But Madison spoke for the proposal, and so did others. But in the end, the Convention listened to a different voice, one not in the room on those hot summer days, yet heard clearly nonetheless: that of the French constitutional philosopher Montesquieu, who had warned that "there is no liberty if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative powers."

And so, the role assigned to judges in our system was to interpret the Constitution and lesser laws, not to make them. It was to protect the integrity of the Constitution, not to add to it or subtract from it—certainly not to rewrite it. For as the framers knew, unless judges are bound by the text of the Constitution, we will, in fact, no longer have a government of laws, but of men and women who are judges. And if that happens, the words of the documents that we think govern us will be just masks for the personal and capricious rule of a small elite.

Well, Justice Kennedy has shown a consistence and courageous dedication to preserving ours as a government of laws, and that's why I nominated him. In more than 12 years on the bench of the 9th Circuit, he won the respect of his colleagues and of the entire legal community. Lawyers and judges of all persuasions characterize him as fair, openminded, and scholarly. And considering the unusual division and intensity of views in the legal community of his circuit, that says a lot. And besides, anyone who teaches law in a powdered wig and a tricornered hat is all right by me on original intent. [Laughter]

So, to Justice and Mrs. Kennedy and the entire family, congratulations, good luck, and God bless you. And now I know that Justice Kennedy looks forward to greeting each of you in a few moments.

Note: The President spoke at 4:03 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Swearing-In Ceremony for Anthony M. Kennedy as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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