Justice Kennedy announces plans to step down from Supreme Court

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U.S. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy — the author of major U.S. Supreme Court rulings in favor of gay rights — has announced plans to step down from the bench.

Major media outlets reported Kennedy — appointed by President Reagan in 1988 — announced plans to step down Wednesday afternoon as the court’s 2017-2018 term came to a close. The Washington Blade confirmed Kennedy’s plans for departure with the Supreme Court.

“It has been the greatest honor and privilege to serve our nation in the federal judiciary for 43 years, 30 of those years on the Supreme Court,” Kennedy said in a statement.

According to the statement, Kennedy on Wednesday told his fellow justices he’s submitting to President Trump formal notification, effective July 31, to “cease active status as an associate justice and to assume senior status.” That would effectively mean he’s stepping down.

The statement says Kennedy’s family was willing for him to continue to serving on the Supreme Court, but decided to step down in part to spend more time with them. Kennedy also has admiration for his colleagues and will “retain warm ties with each of them in the years to come.”

For decades, Kennedy has been the author of major gay rights rulings from the Supreme Court. The 1996 decision in Romer v. Evans held state laws barring municipalities from enacting LGBTQ non-discrimination ordinances are unconstitutional. Kennedy also wrote the 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down state laws criminalizing same-sex relations.

Kennedy wrote decisions enacting marriage equality throughout the country, first with the 2013 decision in Windsor v. United States against the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriage, then with the 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, which struck down state bans on same-sex marriage and guaranteed marriage equality through the country.

Gregory Angelo, president of Log Cabin Republicans, praised Kennedy and said no other justice in ever “has done more to advance gay rights than Justice Kennedy.”

“This is not something that is up for debate; in his 30 years on the bench of the nation’s highest judicial body, Justice Kennedy did not simply author the most pro-gay decisions of a Supreme Court Justice — he authored all of them,” Angelo said.

Kennedy also wrote the ruling this year in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case in which the court ruled for a Colorado baker seeking to refuse to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples on religious grounds despite a state LGBTQ non-discrimination law. But the narrow decision on the basis of the facts of the case and perceived religious animosity from the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. At least one state court in Arizona has invoked the decision to preserve a Phoenix non-discrimination ordinances.

But others have also criticized Kennedy for decisions they say undermine civil rights. Kennedy closed out his final term joining the majority in decisions upholding Trump’s travel ban, overturning a California law requiring clinics to notify patients of abortion providers and declaring free-share fees unions charge to non-member violates freedom of speech.

Vanita Gupta, CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, had an even-handed view of Kennedy during his time on the bench, calling him “the fifth and deciding vote in several landmark cases.”

“He was the architect of four landmark decisions that helped bring LGBTQ people and their families out of the shadows and recognized their full humanity under law and in the public square,” Gupta said. “And he was also a swing vote against harsh criminal sentences and restrictions to reproductive healthcare for women. But as we saw just this week, he more often voted to undermine civil rights protections.”

Kennedy announced his retirement the day after anniversaries of his decisions in Lawrence cases as well as the marriage equality ruling in the Windsor and Obergefell cases.

Mason Davis, CEO of Freedom for all Americans, recognized those anniversaries as he called for a new justice that would uphold the tradition of Kennedy.

“We and many LGBTQ Americans and our allies are concerned about the uncertainty of who will sit on the Supreme Court,” Davis said. “But support for marriage equality, LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, and treating transgender people fairly are at all-time highs in this country. We expect that whoever is nominated to replace Justice Kennedy, will respect the law and more importantly, respect full dignity and basic protections for LGBTQ Americans under the law.”

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