Wednesday, May 12, 2010

We Like Those Upper West Siders

Dear George,

We are excited about Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.  She offers a close fit with Obama’s world-view, has impressive credentials, and is a charismatic individual in her own right.  With her confirmation a seemingly sure thing, it will be the first time in history with three women justices on the Supreme Court.   Kagan would also be the eighth Jewish justice in the court’s history and the third on the current bench.  Here are some things the news media has had to say.


Elena Kagan was born in New York City in 1960, the middle of three children, and grew up at West End Avenue and 75th Street on New York’s Upper West Side, just a few blocks away from where we visited Ami and Bruce many times in the 1970’s and 80’s.  Her mother Gloria taught 5th and 6th grades at Hunter College Elementary School, and her father was a Yale-educated lawyer who represented tenant associations in New York apartment buildings.  Friends call her her father’s daughter because of her adopting his love of opera, the New York Mets, and the law.  The family enjoyed discussing and debating current events, and dinner conversations were characterized by verbal sparring.  Kagan has said, “Where I grew up – on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans.”


Kagan was strong-willed and independent as a youngster.  She clashed with the rabbi over details of her bas mitzvah ceremony.  She was a standout among the ultrabright girls at Hunter College High School.  One classmate recalls Elena’s teenage dream of becoming a Supreme Court Justice.  She was the only female student known to smoke and was instrumental in getting smoking “legalized” in one of the girls’ bathrooms.  Her crowd didn’t join the disco party craze, but were more likely to spend their time talking on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum.  Kagan was elected president of the Student Government and was pictured in her senior yearbook wearing a judge’s robe, with an accompanying quote from Justice Felix Frankfurter.


Kagan entered Princeton in the fall of 1977, became a history major, and soon found a home at the Daily Princetonian, the student newspaper.  She was editorial chair of the paper by her senior year and wrote columns about politics.  One of her close friends was Student Body President Eliot Spitzer, who was to become Governor of New York and gain some additional notoriety in the press.  Kagan worked for liberal Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman in her race for the U.S. Senate.  Kagan’s senior thesis concerned the decline of socialism in New York City from 1900 to 1933, and she attributed her interest in the topic to her brother Marc’s involvement in radical causes.  She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, receiving one of Princeton’s highest scholarly awards.  After graduation she went to Oxford on a fellowship for two years and then enrolled in law school at Harvard.


At Harvard Kagan was selected as supervising editor for the Harvard Law Review.  She won two highly prized clerkships, first for Judge Abner J. Mikva (later an important mentor for Barack Obama) in the federal appeals court and then for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.  After graduation she worked as a litigator in a Washington law firm.  In 1991 she took a tenure-track position in the University of Chicago law school, the same year the Illinois state senator Barack Obama began lecturing there.  A mentor at Chicago told the New York Times, “She was tough, she was independent-minded, she was demanding of her students, she had a good sense of humor.  The students admired her and raved about her right from the beginning.”  Kagan received tenure in 1995, though some colleagues thought she hadn’t published enough.  Shortly afterward, she was offered and took a position as an Associate White House Counsel, working with Bill Clinton’s director of domestic policy. 


At the White House Kagan soon developed a reputation as an in-house constitutional lawyer, batting ideas around with the president and winning over important Republicans like Senators John McCain and Bill Frist of Tennessee.  In 1999 she took a visiting professorship at Harvard.  Four years later she was appointed Dean of the Harvard Law School.  Harvard Law at the time was in a state of disarray – battling professors, dated curricula, poor physical facilities, and disgruntled students.  Kagan undertook a top-to-bottom transformation, often wooing faculty members over dinner at her home, and she added 22 faculty positions over a six-year period.  In an April Fool’s parody, the Harvard Law Record featured the headline, “Dean Kagan Hires Every Law Professor in the Country.”  While Kagan rarely spoke out on political issues, she was adamant about the military barring gays from serving openly in the armed forces, and she actively supported a policy barring military recruiters from using the law school’s facilities. 


In March 2009 Kagan left Harvard to become Solicitor General, the top appellate lawyer for the federal government.  She was described by a predecessor as “open-minded, pragmatic, and progressive.”  Six months later she made her debut at the Supreme Court, unfortunately losing in a case in which the judges voted 5-4 to allow unlimited corporate spending in candidate elections.  President Obama nominated Elena Kagan on May 10, 2010, to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the pending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s liberal leader.  Obama is said to have been looking for a justice who can counter the court’s tilt to the political right.  In brief remarks upon her nomination, Kagan spoke of her love for the law “…because law matters; because it keeps us safe; because it protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms; and because it is the foundation of our democracy.”  We look forward to following her participation on the Court for years to come.



[Sources: New York Times,,, Wikipedia]

No comments:

Post a Comment