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The Supreme Court Isn’t the Harvard Law School Faculty

This report repeats the idea that Elena Kagan was nominated primarily to sway Justice Kennedy to the liberal side of those tricky 5-4 decisions. But if so, does this make any sense? That notion assumes that the Court operates like the Harvard Law School faculty, where nice words, dinner parties, back-slapping, and not revealing her own views served Kagan well. But that’s not how the Court operates:

Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court lawyer at Akin Gump and author of the widely read SCOTUS Blog, says she has exhibited an “extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful” avoidance of public positions on any matters she might face as a Justice. “I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade,” Goldstein wrote.

And even if she did have well-established positions, they’d be nothing compared to Kennedy’s. “Justice Kennedy has been on the bench for 40-some years now, including his time on the Ninth Circuit,” says the former clerk. “It’s particularly unlikely that he’s going to fall under the sway of a new judge who’s never been on the court.”

This convoluted argument suggests just how farcical the notion is that a pleasing personality is a satisfactory substitute for developed legal scholarship and brilliant writing (neither of which Kagan has yet demonstrated):

Kagan supporters point to the fact that she convinced some hard-line Republicans to vote for her when she was nominated to be Solicitor General, most notably Jon Kyl of Arizona, the behind-the-scenes GOP power on the Judiciary Committee. Though he’s unlikely to vote for her for the Supreme Court, her ability to win him over, which she did in the course of a lengthy conversation in his office during the nomination process, counts for something.

Huh? So getting Kyl to vote for her once — but not for the Supreme Court — shows she can lure Kennedy into the liberal camp on knotty issues of constitutional and statutory interpretation, and do so better than did Justice Stevens, a man who had been on the bench for decades? It’s a bit absurd. If the Obama team wanted a smart, accomplished jurist who has shown the ability to go toe-to-toe with and persuade conservative judges, Diane Wood might have been a more apt pick. But instead Obama went with someone much like himself, who, come to think of it, hasn’t really been able to persuade conservatives or moderates about the wisdom of his positions.



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