Instant Guide

Who is Elena Kagan?

A concise guide to Obama's newest Supreme Court nominee: Her willful childhood, her boundary-breaking career, and her controversial personal life

As was widely predicted, President Obama has nominated solicitor general Elena Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court when he retires this summer. Kagan, considered a moderate choice, has never been a judge but has worked in the law, in legal academia, and in Washington politics. (Watch Kagan respond to her nomination.) Here's a concise introduction to the woman who could be the next Supreme Court justice:

What's the short version of Kagan's life story?
This boundary-breaking woman — born in New York City in April 1960 to lawyer Robert Kagan and schoolteacher Gloria Kagan — grew up on the Upper West Side. She majored in history at Princeton, then took a law degree at Harvard. She then alternated between private practice, politics, and academia until she was named the first female dean of Harvard Law School in 2003 (where she united a "deeply divided faculty" according to Jeffrey Toobin). Obama named her solicitor general in March, 2009, the first woman to receive the honor.

What does she stand for?
Though Kagan "seems conventionally liberal," notes The Washington Post, she's a "moderate" compared to Obama's other rumored choices. As for her positions, little can be drawn from her arguments as solicitor general, says Ariane de Vogue of ABC News, because she's been "obligated to argue the administration's position regardless of whether she personally supports it."

What was she like as a kid?
Feisty, ambitious, and strong-willed, Kagan was "a standout in a school of ultrabright girls," according to The New York Times. A former law partner remembers her fighting with the rabbi over her bat mitzvah, eventually "negotiating" a conclusion that satisfied everyone.

Did she always want to be a Supreme Court justice?
It would seem so. She was "cocky (or perhaps prescient) enough" to pose for her high school yearbook in a judge's robe with a gavel; a quote from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter runs beneath the photo.

Was she a wild child?
No, though her high school classmates remember her as a compulsive teenage smoker. In trendy 1970s Manhattan, Kagan's circle was "not a partying crowd," remembers a friend. "They were more apt to sit on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and talk."

How did Princeton affect her?
According to Ameena Schelling at the Daily Princetonian, Kagan developed her "political activism and her liberal beliefs" as an undergraduate. She acted as editorial chairman for the campus newspaper, The Princetonian, and moved in the same circles as future New York governor Eliot Spitzer. She sometimes took politics personally; Schelling recalls her, drunk on vodka-and-tonics on election night in 1980, bursting into tears when a Democrat lost a New York senate race.

Has she any links to the Supreme Court?
She clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, who nicknamed her "Shorty," after leaving Harvard in 1987-88. She reportedly used to join male clerks in their pickup basketball games in the Supreme Court gym. A fellow clerk remembered her as a "plucky" player. 

What has she done in Washington?
Kagan worked on Michael Dukakis' 1988 campaign for president, and went on to work as a lawyer to the Clinton Administration from 1995-1999. One of her key jobs in the White House was negotiating legislation on a "far-reaching" bill to impose FDA regulation on the tobacco industry, written by Senator John McCain. The bill never passed, but she gained a reputation as a clever bipartisan negotiator.  

How about her personal life?
The unmarried Kagan's private life has already been the focus of some attention after she was inadvertently — and apparently erroneously — outed as a lesbian by conservative blogger Ben Domenech in March. The nominee herself made no comment on the storm of debate that followed, but the White House let it be known that she was not a homosexual. 

What does she get up to in her spare time? 
Kagan is thought to enjoy the occasional cigar, is considered to be a proficient poker player, and is known to be a literature lover. As a student, she reportedly used to read Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice once a year. "No word on whether Kagan is a fan of the more recent zombie version," says Dave Rosenthal in the Baltimore Sun.

Sources: The New York TimesDaily Princetonian


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