A Product of Two Sides of Town : Judge Kennedy’s Roots in Sacramento Go Deep

Times Staff Writer

Anthony M. Kennedy, President Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court, is a product of two different sides of his hometown here, where he has spent nearly all of his 51 years.

One is the deeply rooted world of old Sacramento, where small clusters of upper-middle-income families have dwelt in the same neighborhoods for three generations. There Kennedy lives quietly in the house where he grew up, faithfully attends the Roman Catholic church he served as an altar boy, studies law books and plays golf with boyhood friends.

The other is the backslapping, political world of state capital Sacramento, where Kennedy worked as a lawyer and a lobbyist for 11 years before being named to the federal appeals court in 1975. There he doled out campaign contributions to friendly legislators, donned a derby hat for good-time lunches at a capital watering hole, and helped make the contacts that later brought him to the attention of then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan.

A Focus of Scrutiny

It was against the confluence of these two worlds that Kennedy’s career developed and his outlook on life and the law was formed. And now this background is expected to be a main focus of scrutiny as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings Monday on the California appeals court jurist’s suitability for the high court.

In sharp contrast to Reagan’s two previous, failed nominees for the vacant court seat, Kennedy manifests a cautious conservatism unlikely to incite the impassioned debate and partisanship Robert H. Bork’s hard ideologies did, and Douglas H. Ginsburg’s would have had he not withdrawn.


As much as his legal positions, it is Kennedy’s background that speaks strongly of him, drawing attention to the perspective he would bring to the high court’s agenda of crucial issues. On its best side, it reflects sureness and stability, cautious deliberation and lifelong commitment to traditional values. At the same time, it can suggest passiveness and even insularity, a reluctance to reject accepted ways that grow questionable over the years.

Favorable Response

Hence, Kennedy’s nomination has brought a roundly favorable, but still slightly qualified response across the political spectrum. Effusive admiration for his solid hometown virtues has been tinged in some quarters with concern about the imprint of old associations and traditions.

The latter have focused specifically on his longtime membership in country clubs that have restricted membership on grounds of race and sex, from which he withdrew only recently, and his lobbying work for a liquor company that was fined for wrongdoing committed while Kennedy was its Sacramento representative. Kennedy himself was accused of no improprieties.

The club memberships in particular “raise troubling questions about Kennedy’s position on civil rights and sex discrimination,” said Ricki Seidman, legal director for People for the American Way.

Both admirable and questionable, his experiences and vantage point flow from a life style remarkably cloistered from outside issues and conflicts, inexorably revolving around family, church, friends and the law.

“Tony’s got his work and he’s got his family, and that’s it,” said Joseph Genshlea, a longtime family friend. “That’s all he does.” Kennedy himself joked in a 1981 interview that his almost lifelong residence in Sacramento “accounts for my cosmopolitan outlook.”

‘A Creature of Habit’

The central currents are striking for their lack of deviation, virtually unswerving from Sacramento childhood to Sacramento adulthood. He is, as several former law partners and clerks put it, “a creature of habit . . . a man who lived by routines.” Those currents include:

--A small boy who spent summers swimming at Sacramento’s Del Paso Country Club, then as an adult was a member for nearly 20 years of that club and four others. All the clubs discriminated against women and blacks, a policy once commonplace nationwide but which gradually has become more objectionable.

Kennedy’s former law partner, Judge Hugh A. Evans, explained recently that in upper-middle-class Sacramento: “Discrimination was not a topic of focal interest. . . . In fact, it wasn’t even thought about.” In a 1968 newspaper interview, Kennedy defended the right of a club to “exclude members as it chooses.” In one of the rare diversions in his record, he recently said he personally disapproves of such policies.

--An altar boy who lit candles at nearby Holy Spirit Church, grew up to attend Mass there regularly and to send all three of his children to Catholic high school.

Devotion Undimmed

His devotion to Catholicism has remained undimmed, his friends say, a fact not lost on pro-choice advocates aware of the church’s adamant stance against abortion. Kennedy’s closest friends profess not to know where he stands on such social issues, but, said Jeff Davis, a longtime friend: “He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, but he’s a Christian.”

--A student who became fascinated by the Constitution at Harvard Law School and began to teach constitutional law at McGeorge Law School in Sacramento four years after graduation. Impressed by the charter’s durability, he taught it with enthusiasm for 22 years. Perhaps predictably, Kennedy’s students note he emphasized the application of constitutional principles to the enduring processes of government rather than to modern issues.

--The son of a lawyer and lobbyist who became a lawyer and lobbyist himself, taking over the family business after his father’s death. Like his father, he moved in the then-closely entangled business and legislative arenas in the 1960s and ‘70s, entertaining lawmakers, buying them gifts and testifying often before legislative committees.

Client Tied to Kickbacks

One of his best accounts was Schenley Industries Inc., the large national liquor manufacturer and a former client of his father. While the younger Kennedy was the company’s lobbyist, its founder was investigated by a New York state panel for alleged links to organized crime, and the company was accused of paying large kickbacks to distributors and committed other violations, for which it later paid more than $100,000 in fines. Kennedy defended Schenley before the state Alcoholic Beverage Control agency against one of the California charges.

Remote himself from the marketing operations involved in the abuses, Kennedy’s association breached no code in political Sacramento, and he stayed on without expressing any concern about it, said law partner Evans. “Representing a client in a legislative forum is just like representing a client who is guilty but has to have his day in court,” Evans said. “There is no stigma to it.”

Even Kennedy’s brief involvement in partisan politics, which launched him toward the sharpest discontinuity in his life--his elevation out of political Sacramento and onto the federal bench--had an insulated, hometown air about it.

Appointed to Court

As former colleagues tell it, Kennedy went to work for the Reagan Administration in California, and later was appointed to the 9th Circuit, mostly through the influence of his close network of neighbors and old friends.

His law partner, Herbert Jackson, was on an advisory council to a Reagan task force drafting Proposition One, an ambitious tax-limitation initiative; his across-the-street neighbor and friend, Davis, was a minor Administration official. Knowing that the governor’s office was looking for a constitutional lawyer to draft the proposition, they urged Reagan’s chief of staff, Edwin Meese III, to “look in his own backyard,” Davis said.

As a result, Kennedy in February, 1973, became the “principal scrivener” of the complex, far-reaching constitutional amendment. During that period, “a relationship of real confidence developed between Meese and Tony,” said Paul Haerle, who had worked for Reagan in California.

Reagan Prevailed on Ford

Proposition One was defeated decisively, but Kennedy was deemed to have performed well. When a spot on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came open in 1975, Reagan, at Meese’s behest, prevailed on then-President Gerald R. Ford to give it to the 38-year-old Sacramentan.

The hometown connection, some here assumed, should also have helped Kennedy win the nomination to the Supreme Court when it first came open earlier this year.

He and Meese had remained friends after Meese became U.S. attorney general, with Meese and his wife, Ursula, occasionally staying as guests in the Kennedys’ house and seeing them socially.

However, Kennedy was passed over once and then again by Meese before he finally got the nomination after the failure of Bork and Ginsburg.

Kennedy responded stoically the day Ginsburg was chosen, but his wife, Mary, and his oldest son, Justin, made their disappointment known. “They’d been in our home,” David Dozier, a family friend, quoted Mary Kennedy as saying of the Meeses.

Another Explanation

Indeed, although Administration officials said it was Meese’s admiration of Bork and Ginsburg’s sharp ideological fervor that did Kennedy in, some here had another explanation for that setback.

During one of the Meeses’ visits to the Kennedy home, one source recalled, Kennedy invited the couple to join him in a drop-by at a neighborhood housewarming. It was the neighborly, old Sacramento thing to do. But the new residents, as the Meeses discovered upon arrival, were gay.

“Maybe this was Meese’s revenge,” the acquaintance said.

The house Anthony McCleod Kennedy grew up in was a virtual clubhouse for both the community and political worlds of Sacramento.

His mother, Gladys M. (Sis) Kennedy, from an old Sacramento family, was a tireless community activist who would “throw a party if the mail came,” a friend remembers. His father, Anthony J. (Bud) Kennedy, a gravel-voiced and garrulous lobbyist representing liquor, tobacco and other interests, held a regular backyard party for legislators.

Young Tony, the second of three children, grew up wandering between the tables of neighborhood bridge games and the legs of Gov. Earl Warren and other power brokers. At age 11, he became the state’s first Senate page. “He knew anybody who was anybody,” remembered Judge Philip C. Wilkins, a longtime friend of the family.

But young Kennedy was not a chip off the old block.

A ‘High Steppin’ Guy’

Bud was a whiskey drinker and cigar smoker--a “pretty high steppin’ guy” who “played cards with a vengeance and seriousness,” said John Quimby, a former state legislator. Quimby remembered that when he once found himself $200 down to Kennedy in a late-night blackjack game and unable to pay, Kennedy Sr., with a good will gesture any legislator could understand, offered to settle the debt for his PT-109 tie-tack.

In contrast, young Tony was a somber and conscientious boy “who drew the line on his responsibilities at a very young age,” one friend said. A high school newspaper story written about him after he was chosen valedictorian says: “Tony’s big moment came when he dropped his gum off the Washington Monument on his trip to the East.”

In fact, a friend, David Dozier, says Kennedy was so straitlaced that his father once half-seriously offered his son $100 if he would get himself arrested “so that the police would call up Mr. Kennedy, like other fathers, and say ‘Come on down, we got him, take him home.’ ”

Money No Problem

Money presented little problem for the Kennedys. Bud Kennedy’s lobbying business was prosperous and he emerged apparently untainted by an influence-buying scandal in the early 1950s involving Arthur Samish, his professional and social colleague who was a notorious liquor lobbyist once labeled “the secret boss of California.”

By the mid 1950s, according to state records, Kennedy Sr. was making as much as $3,000 a month from Schenley alone. That income was supplemented by retainers from other clients and by occasional legal fees, including a share of a then-landmark $160,000 judgment Kennedy and his partner won in a personal injury suit.

It was enough to provide a comfortable life for the family.

Money made possible memberships at the downtown Sutter Club, where Kennedy entertained clients, and at the suburban Del Paso Country Club, where Tony and his brother Tim took their friends swimming in the summer.

Money made it possible for the Kennedys to send each of their children to Stanford University. A serious and proficient student, Tony Kennedy headed there in 1954, leaving his father’s political world behind but already locked on a path of continuity. He would become a lawyer like his old man.

At Stanford--and later Harvard Law School--Kennedy’s conservatism and personal reserve were as marked to his companions as they would be to his colleagues in later life.

While his Sacramento friends joined fraternities and frolicked in their first time away from home, Kennedy lived in the dormitories and studied. When his father gave him a bottle of whiskey to help fuel a summerlong European trip in 1957, Kennedy only gargled with it.

“He was a person who was extremely dedicated, first of all to getting the best education and also to getting good grades,” said John Hamlyn Jr., who accompanied Kennedy on that trip.

Kennedy stayed on to study politics at the London School of Economics, then returned to graduate from Stanford with high honors in political science. At Harvard, classmates say, Kennedy became interested in constitutional law and was elected by professors to an advisory teaching position. They otherwise remember a determined student with a low social profile, who graduated cum laude in June, 1961.

Began Law Career

Out of school, Kennedy embarked on his career in the law, and he decided to set out on his own. Rather than return to Sacramento, he took a job at a large San Francisco firm, Thelen, Marrin, and moved into the all-male Olympic Club. The bright young lawyer immediately made a good impression on his colleagues, and his friend Genshlea remembers envying his old classmate. “Tony’s got it made,” he recalls thinking.

But Kennedy’s adventure was not to last long. Two years later, shortly after marrying Mary Davis, his hometown sweetheart, in a Catholic wedding in Sacramento, he received word that his father had died suddenly of a heart attack. He was called home to take care of his father’s affairs.

Though Kennedy originally intended simply to wind up his father’s law and lobbying business, he was persuaded by his mother to take it over instead.

Kennedy maintained his academic ties by signing on to teach night classes in constitutional law at McGeorge, but at the age of 27, he otherwise returned very much to the world he had grown up in.

He took up membership at the Del Paso Country Club and the Sutter Club. Within a few years, he moved back to the tree-lined blocks of his childhood, buying a home just around the corner from his mother. Like his parents, Kennedy and his wife had three children, who grew up as their father had with tennis and swimming at Del Paso.

Assumed Father’s Clients

In the political world, Kennedy even assumed many of his father’s old clients. But he never could adopt his style.

Young Kennedy was indeed an odd specimen in the old Sacramento lobbying whirl. No cigar. No bottle in the drawer. No card games. He was “one of the early professionals, with a tie on, an office, shoes shined, astute, intelligent, college educated,” said former Assemblyman Gordon Duffy. “He was a very formal-type person,” Duffy said. But he did have his father’s contacts, and that was enough. “He did OK,” Quimby said.

State lobbying records show that Kennedy used the tools of his trade, if not flamboyantly. He often entertained legislators at Sacramento clubs and bought bottled liquor for their aides. He helped foot the bill at the Derby Club, a standing group of lawmakers and lobbyists who wore derby hats when they met for drinks and lunch on Tuesdays.

“You’ve got to do those things to get people realizing they need your help,” said Evans, the former law partner.

An Effective Lobbyist

The lobbying didn’t dominate Kennedy’s law practice, Evans said, but it was an important part of it. And in his own reserved way, Kennedy was effective at it. In his final months as a lobbyist before his appeals court appointment, Kennedy helped to write a bill, backed by Capitol Records and the GRT Corp., his clients, that removed the sales tax from “master” records and tapes used in making recordings. Despite strong opposition from the state Board of Equalization, which said it would cost the state $2.5 million a year and save one record company $1 million, the bill became law.

In the free-wheeling capital of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, moreover, Kennedy was also involved in dealings that have since been banned. On behalf of his clients, he passed out generous campaign contributions--a practice made illegal by a 1974 political reform measure.

His single largest recipient, Sen. Lawrence E. Walsh, who received $6,500 in contributions from Kennedy over six years, said Kennedy once drafted a bill to benefit opticians, and asked Walsh to introduce it in the Legislature. He did, and the bill passed.

Walsh also said that when he once had a legal problem, Kennedy referred him to his law firm for advice. Walsh said he doesn’t remember whether the firm charged him. Another former legislator, Joseph Gonsalves, told Knight-Ridder newspapers in an interview that Kennedy himself had provided free legal services to him.

Under current California law, the donation of legal services by a lobbyist to a legislator would be considered a campaign contribution and would be banned, according to the California secretary of state’s office. But at the time, it was legal.

Appointment to the federal bench in 1975 pulled Kennedy out of political Sacramento, a move he did not mourn, friends say. At last, he had a job that better suited his demeanor.

But he did not leave town. Though the 9th Circuit was based in San Francisco, Kennedy set up his new office next door to his old one in a building down the street from the Statehouse. After his mother’s death in 1981, he moved into his parents’ old house.

The familiar surroundings helped sustain him in what would be a trying time. In an 18-month period, his sister, his mother and his younger brother died, the latter in a surfing accident. He oversaw the disposition of his mother’s estate and became the legal trustee for his brother’s children; his own three children were in high school at the time. He turned to his church for solace, said his parish priest, Father Charles Brady.

Close to Traditions

As a judge, his new public status aside, Kennedy also remained close to other traditions.

Five years after his nomination, he did resign from the Sutter Club, he told the Judiciary Committee in a questionnaire recently, because of its policy “excluding women largely as a matter of practice.”

But it was not until this year, after he had been notified by the Justice Department that he was under consideration for the vacant Supreme Court seat, that he began to withdraw from the others.

He resigned from the Olympic Club in October after notifying it by letter two months earlier that he found the absence of women and blacks among the membership “unacceptable.” At the time, the club was being threatened with legal action by the city of San Francisco over its policies. The same month, he left the Del Paso Club, where he often entertained friends, “to prevent my membership from becoming an issue,” he acknowledged in the questionnaire.

In that document, Kennedy argued at length that his club ties had not breached the American Bar Assn. code discouraging such memberships for judges. None of the clubs’ policies constituted the proscribed “invidious discrimination,” he insisted, because they were not the “result of ill will” or “intended to impose a stigma on such persons"--his own definition.

Kennedy also acknowledged that five of his 35 clerks have been women, and only one was non-white.

Defended as Tolerant

But friends defend him as tolerant and not constrained by the limited social view of a sheltered life. When the gay couple moved in to Kennedy’s neighborhood, said his friend Jeff Davis, Kennedy told him, “If they can tolerate me, I can sure tolerate them.”

If Kennedy is confirmed by the Senate, it may be that the move to Washington will make as much of a difference in his life as his elevation to the Supreme Court.

When he lost out to Ginsburg in October, a friend said, Kennedy told friends he was glad he would not have to sell the family home. Leaving Sacramento, said Jackson, the former law partner, would be a “a difficult, heart-wrenching thing for him.”

Already, it seems, Kennedy’s ties to his hometown and its traditions have begun to fray.

When Kennedy went to Washington in late November to pay courtesy calls in Congress, he promised friends he would return to join them as he had in years past for the neighborhood tailgate party at the Stanford-Berkeley football game. His children, all of whom followed him at Stanford, would be there. “Don’t forget,” he told his old friend Hamlyn, “I’ll be back for the Big Game.”

But when Hamlyn called Kennedy the day before the game, his son answered the phone. “He’s still in Washington,” the son said, “and he won’t be coming to the Big Game. He’s too tired.”

Staff writer Jerry Gillam contributed to this story.