Kennedy, speaking Saturday night at the Opening Assembly of the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco, said the association “must insist that civic education be recommenced and revitalized because freedom is not something that’s on automatic pilot.”
ABA President Laurel Bellows discussed the "starvation of the justice system" in her Assembly remarks
“We must ensure that we have a population, including young people, of course, that knows the meaning of freedom and its history,” Kennedy said. “Every citizen, not just government officials, has the duty to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, but you cannot preserve what you have not studied, you cannot protect what you do not comprehend, you cannot defend what you do not know.”
Freedom is a value that must be taught, he said, and we are failing to teach the triumphs and tragedies that make up the storied history of freedom.
“The nature of democracy is that we are trustees of freedom for the next generation,” Kennedy said. “We must not by apathy or neglect fail to teach the heritage of freedom and its costs.”
Freedom is a responsibility that requires citizens to participate in civic affairs to help shape the nation, he said, and the U.S. a model for other countries.
“Make no mistake, the verdict on freedom has not yet been returned,” Kennedy said. “In most of the world, the jury is still out. They are looking at us, and we must make the case.”
Kennedy also addressed the growing concerns about the fate of the legal profession.
“It does seem appropriate for me to ask this association to consider what their answer would be to a talented young man or brilliant young woman who asked you, ‘Should I pursue a career in the law?’” Kennedy said. “I submit to you that it must be the purpose and mission of this great association to ensure that the structure of the legal academy and the structure of the profession are such that we can and will answer yes, and that that answer is true and accurate.”
He urged the ABA to continue its efforts to strengthen the legal profession and the judiciary, stressing that “we must continue to attract to the judiciary our finest practitioners, and we are not doing it.”
“The ABA is to be commended for its work with the judiciary, but you must do more,” he said. “I hope you convince the political branches that political affiliation is not the first or even the second or third criteria for selection to the bench.”
ABA President Laurel G. Bellows praised Kennedy and his service to the country, and she described the last time that the justice joined the ABA at its Annual Meeting in San Francisco. A decade ago, Kennedy challenged the ABA to examine the nation’s over-incarceration and criminal justice laws. In response, the ABA created the Justice Kennedy Commission, which produced a comprehensive report on issues including incarceration, sentencing and collateral consequences.
“The work of the Kennedy Commission that began 10 years ago is today an ongoing mission for the Criminal Justice Section and the ABA,” Bellows said. “That report has become a blueprint for the ABA’s criminal justice agenda.”
Bellows also bemoaned “the starvation of our justice system” and said the ABA would support those who do battle in their states on the behalf of justice. “If we don’t support our justice system, we will have nothing,” she said.
Several of the program’s speakers praised Bellows and the ABA for their work to fight against human trafficking, one of Bellows’ presidential initiatives during the past year.
The audience heard from Minh Dang, a young woman who was the victim of human trafficking. Dang said she shares her story with others in a plea for someone to take up her cause.
“For me, complete healing does not come without fighting against the social injustices, making sure other children do not go through what I went through,” she said. “I ask that if you take up my cause, that you consider rehumanizing survivors.
“Members of the ABA, please let us work together,” she added.
Other speakers included San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee, who welcomed the ABA members and distinguished guests to the city, and California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, who, like Kennedy, touted the value of civic education and the importance of the judiciary.