Human Rights First has announced that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy will receive the organization’s Beacon Prize in honor of his leadership in interpreting and applying the law to advance human dignity and freedom, and his commitment to maintaining the Court’s role as a beacon for the rule of law around the world. The prize will be bestowed on December 9 during an evening gala at the National Museum for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C. The event marks the culmination of the organization’s annual Human Rights Summit, which takes place that same day at the Newseum.
“In so many landmark decisions throughout his career, most recently in his momentous majority opinion legalizing same-sex marriage, Justice Kennedy has been a pivotal voice in making the promise of our Constitution real in the lives of people seeking freedom and justice,” said Human Rights First President and CEO Elisa Massmino. “This award also celebrates Justice Kennedy’s keen understanding that American jurisprudence is not a one-way broadcast. The influence of the Supreme Court extends beyond our shores, as foreign courts—in mature democracies contemplating evolving norms as well as in nations struggling to establish the rule of law—look to this quintessentially American institution as a guidepost.”
Animated by principles of liberty and freedom, Justice Kennedy’s opinions have had a tremendous impact in the United States. He has a keen understanding of the importance of international law and the global influence of rulings from America’s highest court. Writing for the majority in Boumediene v. Bush, Justice Kennedy addressed the influence of the United States in setting norms for how other nations combat terrorism in the post-9/11 era: “Security subsists too in fidelity to freedom’s first principles. Chief among these are freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adherence to the separation of powers.” And in Roper v. Simmons, his landmark decision striking down the death penalty for juveniles, he wrote that, “[I]t is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty.”
Justice Kennedy’s commitment to liberty and the inherent dignity and rights of the individual, and his understanding that the eyes of the world are on the court, were in full view in his Obergefell v. Hodges decision. He wrote: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”
The Beacon Prize will be presented by William D. Zabel, chairman of Human Rights First and founding partner of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP. Zabel played a key role in the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia that put an end to race-based bans on marriage. He and Justice Kennedy were classmates at Harvard Law School.
The Beacon Prize is awarded annually to an individual or organization whose work embodies the best in the tradition of American leadership on human rights. Starting with Eleanor Roosevelt’s leading role in shepherding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Americans – government officials and private individuals – have nurtured and shaped the human rights movement, turning the principles enumerated in the Universal Declaration into action. The name of the award echoes the words of leaders from President Ronald Reagan to President Barack Obama who have hailed the United States as a beacon for all those seeking freedom. The Beacon Prize invokes this description as a challenge: America’s beacon shines brightest when our country leads by example and when its actions match its ideals. The Beacon Prize celebrates those whose actions to promote human rights have brought the United States closer to this ideal.
Previous recipients have included Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Senator Bob Dole (R-KS), and Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens (posthumously).