As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee and, later, its chairman from 1979 to 1981, he pushed successfully for greater diversity in nominations to the federal courts. He participated in the nomination hearings for every member of the current Supreme Court with the exception of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, beginning with Justice John Paul Stevens in 1975 and ending with Justice Samuel Alito in 2006.
During those hearings, his aggressive questioning reflected the areas of concern that dominated his years in the Senate: Access to the courts and discrimination against minorities, women and the disabled.
His impact and influence weren’t confined to the committee room or to legislation. On the Senate floor, Kennedy was a leader in the effort to defeat confirmation of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987.
Kennedy’s one-sentence description of “Bork’s America” resounded throughout the media and the nation, and is remembered to this day.
“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, children could not be taught about evolution,” he said.
More than a decade later, he voted to confirm his former staffer, Stephen Breyer, as an associate justice on the Supreme Court. And a decade after that, Kennedy voted against the confirmation of President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Alito.
Some highlights of his career include:
His maiden speech to the Senate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed segregation in public accommodations.
The first major bill that he managed on the Senate floor was the Immigration Act of 1965 — considered a major turning point in immigration and civil rights policy because it eliminated discriminatory immigration quotas which favored European immigration, but restricted immigration from other parts of the world.
He amended the Voting Rights Act in 1970 to lower the voting age to 18, laying the basis for a constitutional amendment moving the voting age from 21 to age 18.
In 1975, he was an original co-sponsor of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which later became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and requires a free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities in every state.