Look, I love legal gossip as much as — actually, way more than — the next guy. I entered the world of legal media through the back door of judicial gossip, writing a blog called Underneath Their Robes under the pseudonym of “Article III Groupie” (because gossiping about judges by night while appearing before them by day, as a federal prosecutor, is not a good look).
But to be a good gossip, you can’t just spread random rumors. You need to exercise discretion and discernment in what you disseminate — which brings me to the rampant rumors about Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s supposedly imminent retirement, to be announced possibly as early as tomorrow.
I won’t bury the lede, so here it is: based on reports I’ve received from former AMK clerks who attended his law clerk reunion dinner last night, I find it highly unlikely that Justice Kennedy will announce his retirement tomorrow.
But before getting into those reports, let me explain the origins of the latest speculation. Rumors of AMK retiring have been galloping around inside the Beltway for months now. On June 22, they gained momentum after Chris Hayes tweeted:
Matt Drudge and the Drudge Report soon joined in the
wishful thinking fun:
Now, legal nerds and #appellatetwitter types might scoff at taking SCOTUS predictions from the likes of Hayes and Drudge. But Mark Sherman of the Associated Press and Ariane de Vogue of CNN, both highly respected Supreme Court correspondents, wrote stories yesterday flagging the speculation. From Sherman:
The biggest news of all [from the Supreme Court] would be if Justice Anthony Kennedy were to use the court’s last public session on Monday to announce his retirement.
To be sure, Kennedy has given no public sign that he will retire this year and give President Donald Trump his second high court pick in the first months of his administration…. But Kennedy turns 81 next month and has been on the court for nearly 30 years. Several of his former law clerks have said they think he is contemplating stepping down in the next year or so. Kennedy and his clerks were gathering over the weekend for a reunion that was pushed up a year and helped spark talk he might be leaving the court.
From de Vogue:
Will he stay or will he go? The rumors have swirled for months, and the 80-year-old justice has done nothing either personally or though intermediaries to set the record straight on whether he will step down.
Adding fuel to the fire, top Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said on ABC’s “This Week” this morning that she could not confirm or deny the AMK retirement talk: “I will never reveal a conversation between a sitting justice and the president or the White House.”
Now, here’s my rebuttal. First, allow me to respectfully dissent from Ariane de Vogue’s comment that “the 80-year-old justice has done nothing either personally or though intermediaries to set the record straight.” Justice Kennedy, through the Court’s Public Information Office, previously has tried to dispel the rumors.
Last November, I offered a detailed discussion of the AMK retirement rumors, identifying three factors fueling the rumors: (1) moving his law clerk reunion up a year, a departure from the customary schedule of every five years; (2) not teaching in summer 2016 at McGeorge Law’s Summer Program in Salzburg, suggesting a possible slowdown for Justice and Mrs. Kennedy; and (3) hiring just one law clerk for the upcoming Term, October Term 2017. (Active justices get four clerks, while retired justices get one clerk, and in the past, some justices have tipped their hands by hiring fewer clerks than usual.)
If you’ve ever dealt with the Supreme Court Public Information Office, you know that the PIO likes to stay above the fray. It doesn’t chime in on every hiccup in the federal judiciary — it’s not Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, after all — and often it simply doesn’t comment on things. But the PIO did respond to my inquiry about Justice Kennedy, issuing this statement (presumably based on information received from the justice himself):
Justice Kennedy is in the process of hiring clerks for 2017. The Justice didn’t go to Salzburg this past summer because it conflicted with some plans with his family, but he is scheduled to return to teach there in 2017. The reunion is scheduled for the end of this Term because the Justice’s law clerks wanted to hold it during the Justice’s 80th year to mark his birthday.
Now, back when I shared this comment with my readers, I offered some caveats:
Is it possible that Justice Kennedy actually is planning to retire next year, but doesn’t want the world to know just yet? Sure. Is it possible that he isn’t currently planning to retire next year, but then changes his mind later? Certainly.
But, on balance, the PIO’s statement weighs in favor of AMK sticking around for a little while.
Second, look at his law clerk hiring. In January 2017, a few weeks after the Public Information Office’s statement, Justice Kennedy hired his fourth and final clerk for the next Term.
And wait, that’s not all. As I’ll mention in my next Supreme Court clerk hiring round-up, and as I’ve already tweeted via @SCOTUSambitions (which offers real-time SCOTUS clerk hiring news), Justice Kennedy has hired one clerk for 2018: Clayton Kozinski (Yale 2017 / Kavanaugh), son of prominent Ninth Circuit judge Alex Kozinski (who clerked for Justice Kennedy back when he was Judge Kennedy of the Ninth Circuit, and who remains personally close to AMK).
Now, hiring clerks for 2017-2018 and 2018-2019 is not dispositive evidence that a justice is sticking around; there’s a tradition at the Court of justices picking up “orphaned” hires of their colleagues (which is what happened with Justice Antonin Scalia’s displaced clerks). But as a matter of collegiality and consideration — and whether or not you like his jurisprudence, Justice Kennedy is collegial and considerate — it’s not nice to impose upon your colleagues by hiring clerks you know will never work for you, putting pressure on these colleagues to scoop up your leftovers (because of SCOTUS tradition).
Finally, let’s turn to the dinner at the Kennedy law clerk reunion, which took place last night. As Kevin Daley noted over at the Daily Caller, Eliana Johnson of Politico and Lawrence Hurley of Reuters previously tweeted that AMK didn’t make a retirement announcement last night. I have more specifics of what he did say, which I’ll now share.
I reached out to several AMK clerks who were in attendance, and those who got back to me all opined that they don’t think he will announce his retirement tomorrow. Here’s why (in addition to their “spidey sense” from his demeanor).
First, Justice Kennedy generally made forward-looking rather than valedictory comments. For example, he talked about the three pairs of parent-child clerks he’s had — e.g., the Kozinskis — and how he hopes to have more in the future. This doesn’t sound like a justice who’s about to be slashing his clerk hiring to one a year (the allotment given to a retired justice).
Second, Justice Kennedy made a joke about all the retirement buzz. At the end of his remarks, he said something along these lines: “There has been a lot of speculation about… a certain announcement from me tonight. And that announcement is: the bar will remain open after the end of the formal program!”
Again — like the Supreme Court press office statement, and like the law clerk hiring — Justice Kennedy’s reunion remarks are not conclusive evidence of non-retirement. Indeed, a few of his former clerks have said — not in a mean way, just a matter-of-fact way — that AMK doesn’t care enough about his clerks to make the big announcement at the reunion. (Compare him to my former boss, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit, who announced his move to senior status at his law clerk reunion — right around the same time he told his colleagues on the bench, and in advance of the first news reports.)
Let’s not mince words: as the so-called “swing justice” on the Supreme Court, Justice Kennedy is one of the most powerful people in the world, and nobody puts AMK in the corner. As both liberals and conservatives have discovered to their dismay over the years, he swings his gavel every which way. Trying to predict AMK’s actions is almost as challenging as, well, trying to predict the actions of the man who might appoint his successor. As one of my sources said, “I’d be shocked if he retired This term after last night — but it wouldn’t be the first time he’s surprised me!”
Truth be told, I would not be surprised if even Justice Kennedy himself hasn’t fully made up his mind (as another source of mine suggested to me). I would not be surprised if AMK has already drafted his resignation letter to President Donald Trump, and if and when the spirit moves the justice, he’ll date it, print it, sign it, and have his chambers aide walk it over to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Liberals should hope and pray that the justice wakes up in a good mood tomorrow morning (because despite progressives’ issues with AMK, he’s a heck of a lot better for them than Trump’s next pick).
So anything is possible tomorrow when it comes to Justice Kennedy — but in terms of what’s probable, it’s highly unlikely that Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy will announce his departure from the Supreme Court of the United States.
P.S. Despite my caveats, I’m not betting both sides of the line; put me on the record as saying AMK won’t retire tomorrow. If forced to assign a probability, I’d say there’s only a 10 percent chance of a retirement announcement. If Justice Kennedy does in fact retire, then yes, I’ll have a veritable three-egg omelet on my face.
P.P.S. In terms of my own self-interest, I’m fervently hoping that Justice Kennedy doesn’t retire tomorrow morning. I’m in meetings or speaking engagements pretty much all day on Monday — come see me tomorrow night if you’re in Minneapolis — so I’ll be majorly annoyed if AMK drops the retirement bomb on a day when I’m mostly offline.
Big cases, retirement rumors as Supreme Court nears finish [Associated Press]Anthony Kennedy retirement watch at a fever pitch [CNN]Conway won’t confirm Justice Kennedy retirement rumors [The Hill]Why Justice Kennedy May Not Leave The Court Right Now [Empirical SCOTUS]