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Vail Law: A look at Ted Kennedy’s legislative legacy

Rohn Robbins
Vail, CO Colorado

VAIL, Colorado –Love him or loathe him, Ted Kennedy served the people of Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate for 47 years, longer than the lives of any of his brothers. He was, unquestionably, in the thick of many of the seminal legislative and cultural changes of the last half century, and was often the standard-bearer and head cheerleader for change. Serving in the Senate for more than 20 percent of its history, you tend to make an indelible impression.

The third longest-serving senator in U.S. history (behind only the indomitable Robert Byrd, D- West Virginia, and the late Strom Thurmond, R- South Carolina), Kennedy, at the least, had staying power. Now that he is gone, a look back at his considerable accomplishments traces the time line from the way we were to what we have become.

Think, first, before contemplating Senator Kennedy’s legislative legacy, what and where we were when he was first elected, in 1962:



• John F. Kennedy was the young and vital president. It was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. U.S. troops were, for the first time, fully committed to combat in Vietnam. Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago won their independence from the British Empire. Nelson Mandela was jailed in South Africa. John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. Telstar became the first communications satellite intended for regular service. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the Knicks.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” and “The Flintsones” ruled the airwaves. Johnny Carson debuted on the “Tonight Show.” John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie” and Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” were new on the shelves. “Lawrence of Arabia” led at the box office.



Senator Kennedy’s first major battle was in 1965 when he led the fight to pass the Hart-Celler Act that abolished immigration quotas and lifted a 1924 ban on immigration from Asia. In 1971, after rising to the position of Senate majority whip, Kennedy led the fight with Rep. Paul Rogers of Florida to pass legislation establishing a federal cancer research program. Spending to battle cancer quadrupled. In 1972 Kennedy was a key backer of Title IX, which required colleges and universities to provide equal funding for men’s and women’s sports.

In 1974, Kennedy teamed with Sen. Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania to sponsor campaign finance, sponsoring the sweeping overhaul of ethics rules that followed the Watergate fiasco. The year 1986 saw Kennedy championing the cause of anti-apartheidism. After President Reagan vetoed economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa, Kennedy spearheaded a bipartisan effort to override the veto.

In 1990, Kennedy, along with Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, co-authored the Family Medical Leave Act which compelled businesses to provide unpaid leave for family emergencies and following the birth of a child.



Health care, which was a thread throughout his legislative life, was next. In 1996, Kennedy and Senator Nancy Kassebaum crafted and passed the Kennedy-Kassebaum Act, which permitted employees to maintain their health insurance after leaving their employment and prohibited health insurance companies from refusing to renew coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions. Sadly, Kennedy did not live to see the present effort health care reform come to its conclusion.

The 1996 session also saw Kennedy’s support in raising the minimum wage, an effort he continued in 2007 with another boost in the minimum wage which became effective in 2009.

In 2001 – breaking with some of his fellow Democrats – Kennedy helped pass President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

Despite his privileged upbringing and circumstances – at the time of his death, his personal fortune was pegged at more than $100 million – Kennedy was always a champion of the common man. He absorbed from a very early age his mother, Rose’s guiding axiom, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Of course, there was more. Much more. He was a champion of equality in all its guises, leading the charge to secure the rights of the disabled and for same-sex couples. He was the author of more than 2,500 bills. He led the charge to control the scourge of nuclear proliferation yet was a fierce protector of military families and a stalwart of funding for a modern and effective armed forces. It’s difficult, to say the least, to encapsulate a half-century career on the public stage in 800 words.

Ted Kennedy? The lion of the senate? The roar is silent now.

Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the Bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley. His practice areas include: business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, homeowners associations, family law and divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) as host of “Community Focus.” Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at his e-mail address: robbins@colorado.net.


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