As Brett Kavanaugh, 53, readies himself for a series of heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearings, many have questioned who will take up his mentor’s mantle on the Supreme Court.
For three decades Justice Anthony Kennedy was arguably the most powerful figure in Washington, D.C. Famed for his ability to vote across party lines. Kennedy, who announced his retirement in June, helped shape some of the biggest landmark decisions of the past decade—most notably on the issue of same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. As a replacement, Kavanaugh is unlikely to be as magnanimous with his votes.
But will that alter the Court’s direction?
Only a little, said Dr. Martha Ginn
Ginn, assistant dean of the Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences and associate professor of political science, said Kennedy’s most likely “successor” is already a fixture of the Court: Chief Justice, and occasional swing voter, John Roberts.
“Roberts will likely become the Court’s ‘swing vote’ now that Kennedy’s out,” Ginn said. “While Roberts may move a little more to the center as result, the overall shift will be more conservative.”
A scholar of constitutional law and the Supreme Court, Ginn said the Court’s rightward movement won’t be quite as monumental as pundits have proposed. After all, Kennedy’s votes weren’t always left-leaning. In his last term, he sided with his liberal colleagues not once.
“I think one point that is getting lost is that Kennedy was, for the most part, a conservative and voted accordingly,” she said. “There were certain issues where he was more likely to join the liberal wing, most prominently LGBTQ rights, but he voted with the conservative justices the majority of the time.”
Kennedy’s retirement will certainly shift the Court toward the right, Ginn added, but “not to the same degree as if Ruth Bader Ginsburg retired or died in office.”
Meanwhile, as the non-chaos of a Kavanaugh confirmation plays out, Roberts stands to gain as the Court’s new wildcard. Ginn said Roberts’ latest ruling, that law enforcement agencies must obtain warrants to use cell tower data, is a good indication of how he’ll vote as part of a post-Kennedy Court.
“I think the role of Chief Justice Roberts becomes even more significant in a Kennedy-less Court and that hasn’t been given much attention,” she said. “I think both sides are forgetting that Roberts is a bit of wild card too when it comes to voting on very consequential cases. The one that comes to mind most
Martha Ginn Professor of Political Science, Assistant Dean of Pamplin College
Dr. Martha Ginn is a political expert on the judicial process, constitutional law and the U.S. Supreme Court.