January 14, 2010 7:14PM

Is Justice Kennedy Libertarian?

Early last year, Cato hosted a book forum for Helen Knowles’s The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty. This really is a remarkable book, with an ambitious goal: trying to make coherent sense of the oft‐​frustrating “swing justice.” And now I have a lengthy review of it that just came out in the latest issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Politics (where Bob Levy also has an essay, on the aftermath of District of Columbia v. Heller).

Knowles makes the provocative argument that Justice Kennedy’s jurisprudence is “modestly libertarian.” I think that this argument, in the limited ways Knowles makes it — with respect to free speech, equal protection, and individual dignity — is probably sound. Still, that deduction is a small discovery considering the broad swath of Supreme Court jurisprudence. Moreover, it says little about whether Kennedy is faithful to the Constitution, which is a stronger measure of libertarianism (as Randy Barnett described at Cato’s 2008 Constitution Day Conference in his B. Kenneth Simon Lecture in Constitutional Thought, reprinted in the latest Cato Supreme Court Review).

Here’s how I conclude:

Good on speech and race, bad on government power, and ugly on abortion and the death penalty, Justice Kennedy is a sui generis enigma at the heart of the modern Supreme Court. However new Justice Sonia Sotomayor affects the Court’s dynamics, it is unlikely that Justice Kennedy will shift from his role as the deciding vote in most controversial cases. Helen Knowles has thus done us a great service in deconstructing Justice Kennedy’s faint‐​hearted libertarianism and helping us better understand the “sweet mystery” of his jurisprudence.

For details on how I reached this conclusion, read the full review (which you can also download from SSRN). I should add that Knowles’s book is more useful to us Court‐​watchers than Frank Colucci’s Justice Kennedy’s Jurisprudence: The Full and Necessary Meaning of Liberty — whose shortcomings I won’t detail but instead refer you to Eric Posner’s thoughtful critique.