The Corner

Supreme Court Nominee Elena Kagan

It’s now being widely reported that later this morning President Obama will announce his decision to nominate Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.  Drawing on my many previous Bench Memos posts, I offer some initial comments on a Kagan nomination:

1.  I have plenty of respect for Kagan’s intellect and ability, and she deserves considerable credit for her tenure as dean of Harvard law school, including for her generous treatment of conservatives, which has earned her considerable goodwill.  But …

2.  Kagan may well have less experience relevant to the work of being a justice than any justice in the last five decades or more.  In addition to zero judicial experience, she has only a few years of real-world legal experience.  Further, notwithstanding all her years in academia, she has only a scant record of legal scholarship.  Kagan flunks her own “threshold” test of the minimal qualifications needed for a Supreme Court nominee.

3.  There is a striking mismatch between the White House’s populist rhetoric about seeking a justice with a “keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people” and the reality of the Kagan pick.  Kagan is the consummate Obama insider, and her meteoric rise over the last 15 years—from obscure academic and Clinton White House staffer to Harvard law school dean to Supreme Court nominee—would seem to reflect what writer Christopher Caldwell describes as the “intermarriage of financial and executive branch elites [that] could only have happened in the Clinton years” and that has fostered the dominant financial-political oligarchy in America.  In this regard, Kagan’s paid role as a Goldman Sachs adviser is the perfect marker of her status in the oligarchy—and of her unfathomable remoteness from ordinary Americans.

4.  Kagan’s record thus manages to replicate the primary supposed defect of the judicial monastery—isolation from the real-world lives of ordinary Americans—without conferring the broader benefits of judicial experience. 

5.  Kagan’s exclusion of military recruiters from the Harvard law school campus promises to draw considerable attention precisely because—as Peter Beinart, the liberal former editor of the New Republic, has written—it amounted to “a statement of national estrangement,” of Kagan’s “alienating [her]self from the country.”  In her fervent opposition to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law and the Solomon Amendment, Kagan elevated her own ideological commitment on gay rights above what Congress, acting on the advice of military leaders, had determined best served the interests of national security.  At a time of war, in the face of the grand civilizational challenge that radical Islam poses, Kagan treated military recruiters worse than she treated the high-powered law firms that were donating their expensive legal services to anti-American terrorists.

6.  Kagan has argued that the Senate should carefully explore a nominee’s views on judicial philosophy generally and on hotly contested constitutional issues in particular.  Her argument has special force for someone who has been so guarded about her own views.  Indeed, its force is all the greater since Kagan has indulged her own ideological views in the one area, gay rights, in which she has been vocal:  as law school dean, Kagan embraced an utterly implausible reading of the Solomon Amendment, and as Solicitor General, she has acted to undermine the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law and the Defense of Marriage Act that she is dutybound to defend. 

7.  Kagan shows signs of moderation on issues of presidential power and national security.  But there’s no basis for hopes that she might secretly harbor conservative legal views on other matters.   

8.  Kagan’s records from her White House years in the Clinton administration promise to offer important insights into her legal thinking.  It makes no sense to schedule her confirmation hearing until it’s clear when those records will be made available.

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