Justice, humanity, and language

If you’re a writer, jealousy and envy can be hard to keep in check. But while I might envy John le Carré every time I open one of his books, I don’t usually feel that way about Supreme Court justices. However, as you’ve probably heard, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s closing paragraph in his decision on same-sex marriage has been widely praised and repeated, not just for its content but for the beauty of the language. Since I taught writing as part of the job I recently retired from, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at why.

To start with, decisions by the Supremes and our other courts are not typically great writing. Brown vs. Board of Education, for example, includes the historic, “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place,” but the rest of the ruling is relatively workmanlike and restrained. Justice Kennedy’s paragraph is very different:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

Now let’s break it down. No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. This sets the stage: a brief declarative sentence packed with simple, powerful words. It doesn’t weaken itself or burden the reader by using legalisms. It does remind us what we’re talking about: not just sexuality, but something larger and universal.

In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. Again, without throwing big words around, he delivers fundamental truths, which anyone who’s ever been married or deeply loved another person will understand. And he’s still using short sentences, with each one conveying its own idea. He’s not cramming several points into run-on sentences the way many legal documents do.

It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Bulls-eye. In all the years and all the ways we’ve fought over this issue, no one has ever recognized and stated this basic fact so clearly. The words make us realize it should’ve been self-evident all along, that no one should be blinded by their hatred of the difference of others.

Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. Who among us hasn’t feared loneliness? And finally: They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

Not equal “treatment,” “accommodation,” “standing,” or “status,” but equal dignity, a human condition and emotion. Those two words and the rest of this brilliant passage make the reader understand that the law is not a bloodless entity, that it reaches into the core of our lives, and that in this case, the existing law was indefensible. Transforming the abstract into the real in this way is what every writer strives for. I’m definitely envious, but when I read it I couldn’t be happier.

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