Texas v. Johnson – The Flag Burning Case 1989

These are some of the most eloquent words ever written.  They make me happy to be an American, and a lawyer.  This is Justice Kennedy’s entire concurring opinion.

JUSTICE KENNEDY, concurring.

I write not to qualify the words JUSTICE BRENNAN chooses so well, for he says with power all that is necessary to explain our ruling. I join his opinion without reservation, but with a keen sense that this case, like others before us from time to time, exacts its personal toll. This prompts me to add to our pages these few remarks.

The case before us illustrates better than most that the judicial power is often difficult in its exercise.  We cannot here ask another Branch to share responsibility, as when the argument is made that a statute is flawed or incomplete.  For we are presented with a clear and simple statute to be judged against a pure command of the Constitution.  The outcome can be laid at no door but ours.

The hard fact is that sometimes we must make decisions we do not like.  We make them because they are right, right in the sense that the law and the Constitution, as we see them, compel the result.  And so great is our commitment to the process that, except in the rare case, we do not pause to express distaste for the result, perhaps for fear of undermining a valued principle that dictates the decision.  This is one of those rare cases.

Our colleagues in dissent advance powerful arguments why respondent may be convicted for his expression, reminding us that among those who will be dismayed by our holding will be some who have had the singular honor of carrying the flag in battle.  And I agree that the flag holds a lonely place of honor in an age when absolutes are distrusted and simple truths are burdened by unneeded apologetics.

With all respect to those views, I do not believe the Constitution gives us the right to rule as the dissenting Members of the Court urge, however painful this judgment is to announce.  Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit.  The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us.  It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

For all the record shows, this respondent was not a philosopher and perhaps did not even possess the ability to comprehend how repellent his statements must be to the Republic itself.  But whether or not he could appreciate the enormity of the offense he gave, the fact remains that his acts were speech, in both the technical and the fundamental meaning of the Constitution.  So I agree with the Court that he must go free.

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