Sometimes, what looks to be a normal, routine, even mundane event has a much deeper significance and a much broader societal impact than you might imagine. On Tuesday, June 26, Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the bench of the Supreme Court, effective July 31. Kennedy is 81 years old, but he did not tip his hand whatsoever that retirement was even a consideration at this point. In fact, he hired his normal batch of law clerks from the upcoming 2018-2019 term. Still, Court-watchers had their eyes on him as the most likely to retire, since he was a Republican appointee (he had been appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1988). The other two justices who might potentially retire – Ruther Bader Ginsburg (aged 85) and Stephen Breyer (aged 79) – were both appointed by Bill Clinton. The likelihood of them voluntarily retiring during a Trump presidency are slim and none…and Slim just left town.
The retirement of any Supreme Court justice is important, to be sure, for a multitude of reasons. For instance, justices often serve very long terms – decades, in fact – because they receive a lifetime appointment (pending good behavior). They cannot be voted out (they can be impeached, but that has only happened to one Supreme Court justice, and that was in 1804), and once confirmed by the Senate, they can decide cases however they desire. Many justices have been disappointments to the presidents who appointed them (Earl Warren is perhaps the poster boy for this, having been appointed by Eisenhower). Also, the Supreme Court has a very important and impactful role in not only our political life, but our cultural life as well. These can be beneficial or horrific; just compare Brown v. Board of Education (desegregation) with Roe v. Wade (the legalization of abortion). The cases they decide have a long ranging impact because of the legal doctrine of stare decisis (“let the decision stand”), also known as precedent.
But Kennedy’s retirement is even more significant than the average justice’s retirement, because Kennedy has long been the “swing vote” on the Court. For a long time now, the Court has been pretty evenly divided between four conservative justices and four liberal justices. Kennedy has wavered, voting with the conservatives at times (e.g., gun rights, restricting unions) and with the liberals at times (e.g., striking down abortion restrictions, legalizing same-sex marriage). Of course, this infuriated both sides, but it also served to cause Kennedy to be thought of as “the most powerful man in Washington.” After all, his vote was so often the tiebreaker on an evenly divided Court. Trump’s nominee, whose identity we will learn in the coming weeks, has the potential to solidify a conservative majority on the Court for the foreseeable future.
As believers, however, how ought we to consider this situation? On the one hand, we should thank God for how He sovereignly and providentially guides the affairs of nations. Kennedy’s retirement, at this point in history, is no chance event. It happened precisely when God intended it to happen, which includes all the circumstances that surround that event (i.e., who the President is, which party currently controls the Senate, etc). However, if we are going to thank and praise God for His sovereign providence, that also means that we need to always trust His sovereign providence, as well. In other words, had the 2016 election turned out differently and we found ourselves under a Clinton administration, we would need to thank and praise God for how He has guided history in this direction, as well. When we come to the realization that God ordains all the comes to pass (cf. Gen. 50:20, Eph. 1:11), we find ourselves freed from the anxiety that comes from an excessive concern in who will don Kennedy’s black robe – or anyone else’s, for that matter – because the Judge of the Universe is the ultimate decider. Even if the Court turns and decides to take away our rights, we still have Jesus – and He is more than enough. Just something to think about…