Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Souter

The Underwelming Kagan

Joshua Green examines why liberals are nervous about Elena Kagan. He explains:

The same thing that makes her confirmation so likely — the lack of a paper trail for opponents to parse and attack — has also become a prime source of concern for her own side. There’s little hard evidence to reassure liberals that she’ll adjudicate in the way they would prefer. Kagan’s lack of a judicial record and scant legal writing during a career spent mostly in politics and the deanship of Harvard Law School leave open the possibility she’ll turn out to be more conservative than advertised. … The liberal complaint against Kagan is threefold: that she wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in hiring women and minorities to the Harvard faculty; that she took worrisome positions on executive power, the war on terrorism, and corporate campaign spending; and that she isn’t the counterpart to Antonin Scalia that the left has long desired.

Green makes a comparison to David Souter, the quintessential stealth candidate who turned out to be not at all what the president who nominated him expected.

Most interesting is that the left — despite the silly Obama spin — recognizes that “she isn’t the counterpart to Antonin Scalia that the left has long desired.” Perhaps they are worried her intellect is not all that dazzling? Well, we can say she’s not demonstrated the sort of brilliance and scholarship or fine writing that the left understands is a prerequisite to do battle on the Court.

She has had a total of six Supreme Court arguments in her short tenure as solicitor general. It took a full six months before she gave her first argument in Citizens United, bypassing key cases, including Ricci (the New Haven firefighter case) and a high-profile challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Sources within the Justice Department report that Kagan was preparing to argue the Voting Rights Act case but ultimately gave way to her deputy.

Does this sound like a proficient, accomplished “lawyer’s lawyer”? Not even Kagan is high on her own advocacy abilities. Her outing in Citizens United was rocky at best, getting the worst of questioning from both Justices Scalia and Kennedy (whom she is tasked by the left with persuading once she is confirmed). At an awards ceremony at Georgetown Law School honoring Kennedy earlier this month, Kagan spoke, and her comments are revealing — and should be bracing to the left:

At one point, Kagan raised audience eyebrows when she said she would remember an exchange she had with Kennedy “for the rest of my career as an advocate.” …

That memorable exchange with Kennedy that Kagan was recalling, by the way, offered a glimpse into how Kagan handled her first oral argument before the high court — or any court — last September in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That’s the landmark campaign finance case that Kagan lost 5-4, with Kennedy writing the majority.

In spite of her earlier praise for Kennedy, Kagan told the Georgetown audience that the justice had “a bit of a bad habit,” namely that he asks advocates about cases that are not mentioned anywhere in the briefs for the case. Kennedy did just that in Citizens United when he asked Kagan whether something she had just said was “inconsistent with the whole line of cases that began with Thornhill v. Alabama and Coates v. Cincinnati.” … Perhaps many advocates know those cases, Kagan said, but “I at any rate did not.” She added, “There was a look of panic on my face.”

Without knowing for sure, Kagan said she believes that Kennedy “saw in the flash of an instant that … I really had no clue” about the cases he was asking her about. Instead of waiting for her painful reply, Kennedy quickly went on to explain the Thornhill line of cases — which relate to facial challenges to statutes under the First Amendment — with enough detail that Kagan was able to recover and answer the question.

The left has good reason to worry. Kagan will need to elicit respect, not pity, from Kennedy once she is confirmed if she is to fulfill the left’s fondest hopes. Maybe she will grow into the job, but if it took six months to get prepared for her first argument before the Court, how long will it take before she is an influential force on the Court? Will she ever be?

Joshua Green examines why liberals are nervous about Elena Kagan. He explains:

The same thing that makes her confirmation so likely — the lack of a paper trail for opponents to parse and attack — has also become a prime source of concern for her own side. There’s little hard evidence to reassure liberals that she’ll adjudicate in the way they would prefer. Kagan’s lack of a judicial record and scant legal writing during a career spent mostly in politics and the deanship of Harvard Law School leave open the possibility she’ll turn out to be more conservative than advertised. … The liberal complaint against Kagan is threefold: that she wasn’t sufficiently aggressive in hiring women and minorities to the Harvard faculty; that she took worrisome positions on executive power, the war on terrorism, and corporate campaign spending; and that she isn’t the counterpart to Antonin Scalia that the left has long desired.

Green makes a comparison to David Souter, the quintessential stealth candidate who turned out to be not at all what the president who nominated him expected.

Most interesting is that the left — despite the silly Obama spin — recognizes that “she isn’t the counterpart to Antonin Scalia that the left has long desired.” Perhaps they are worried her intellect is not all that dazzling? Well, we can say she’s not demonstrated the sort of brilliance and scholarship or fine writing that the left understands is a prerequisite to do battle on the Court.

She has had a total of six Supreme Court arguments in her short tenure as solicitor general. It took a full six months before she gave her first argument in Citizens United, bypassing key cases, including Ricci (the New Haven firefighter case) and a high-profile challenge to the Voting Rights Act. Sources within the Justice Department report that Kagan was preparing to argue the Voting Rights Act case but ultimately gave way to her deputy.

Does this sound like a proficient, accomplished “lawyer’s lawyer”? Not even Kagan is high on her own advocacy abilities. Her outing in Citizens United was rocky at best, getting the worst of questioning from both Justices Scalia and Kennedy (whom she is tasked by the left with persuading once she is confirmed). At an awards ceremony at Georgetown Law School honoring Kennedy earlier this month, Kagan spoke, and her comments are revealing — and should be bracing to the left:

At one point, Kagan raised audience eyebrows when she said she would remember an exchange she had with Kennedy “for the rest of my career as an advocate.” …

That memorable exchange with Kennedy that Kagan was recalling, by the way, offered a glimpse into how Kagan handled her first oral argument before the high court — or any court — last September in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. That’s the landmark campaign finance case that Kagan lost 5-4, with Kennedy writing the majority.

In spite of her earlier praise for Kennedy, Kagan told the Georgetown audience that the justice had “a bit of a bad habit,” namely that he asks advocates about cases that are not mentioned anywhere in the briefs for the case. Kennedy did just that in Citizens United when he asked Kagan whether something she had just said was “inconsistent with the whole line of cases that began with Thornhill v. Alabama and Coates v. Cincinnati.” … Perhaps many advocates know those cases, Kagan said, but “I at any rate did not.” She added, “There was a look of panic on my face.”

Without knowing for sure, Kagan said she believes that Kennedy “saw in the flash of an instant that … I really had no clue” about the cases he was asking her about. Instead of waiting for her painful reply, Kennedy quickly went on to explain the Thornhill line of cases — which relate to facial challenges to statutes under the First Amendment — with enough detail that Kagan was able to recover and answer the question.

The left has good reason to worry. Kagan will need to elicit respect, not pity, from Kennedy once she is confirmed if she is to fulfill the left’s fondest hopes. Maybe she will grow into the job, but if it took six months to get prepared for her first argument before the Court, how long will it take before she is an influential force on the Court? Will she ever be?

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Elena Kagan — Stealth Nominee?

Elena Kagan is the prohibitive favorite for the Supreme Court. She has made it through one confirmation hearing for her current post as solicitor general and possesses academic credentials, a reputation for collegiality with conservatives, and a limited paper trail. Moreover, she is the closest we have to a stealth candidate among the front-runners. As Tom Goldstein notes, “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.”

Casual observers assume that a dean of Harvard Law School and a domestic-policy aide in the Clinton administration must have a sizable body of work reflecting her legal views. But not so. Paul Campos has read all there is to read — and it’s not much:

Yesterday, I read everything Elena Kagan has ever published. It didn’t take long: in the nearly 20 years since Kagan became a law professor, she’s published very little academic scholarship—three law review articles, along with a couple of shorter essays and two brief book reviews. Somehow, Kagan got tenure at Chicago in 1995 on the basis of a single article in The Supreme Court Review—a scholarly journal edited by Chicago’s own faculty—and a short essay in the school’s law review. She then worked in the Clinton administration for several years before joining Harvard as a visiting professor of law in 1999. While there she published two articles, but since receiving tenure from Harvard in 2001 (and becoming dean of the law school in 2003) she has published nothing. (While it’s true law school deans often do little scholarly writing during their terms, Kagan is remarkable both for how little she did in the dozen years prior to becoming Harvard’s dean, and for never having written anything intended for a more general audience, either before or after taking that position.)

Campos goes so far as to suggest that Kagan is a Harriet Miers type – minus the cronyism. He concludes:

Indeed, the most impressive thing about Kagan is that she seems to have a remarkable ability to ingratiate herself with influential people across the ideological spectrum. … As a private lawyer, Miers, after all, had a fairly good excuse for having no public views on the great legal issues of our day. For most of the past 20 years, Kagan’s job has been to both develop and publicize such views. That she has nevertheless managed to almost completely avoid doing so is rather extraordinary.

What to make of this? Well, if a Republican president were to select a person with such a skimpy written record, conservatives would be (and were with the Miers nomination) rightfully worried. But do the same concerns — ideological infidelity, intellectual mediocrity — really apply to Kagan? Let’s be honest, it works differently for liberals. Very few are tempted to moderate their views and slide rightward, while Republican-nominated jurists (David Souter, John Paul Stevens) have a history of “disappointing” their side. And while no one has claimed that Kagan has achieved greatness in legal scholarship, the assumption — rightly or not — is that the dean of one of the top law schools in the country must have some intellectual wattage. Nevertheless, liberal legal activists might have reason to be a bit nervous — after all, would a justice who lacks judicial chops be the best choice to sway Justice Kennedy on those all-important 5-to-4 decisions? Is she really the one who is going to go toe-to-toe with Justice Scalia? There is some risk there if Obama were to choose a lesser known quantity than an appellate judge such as Diane Wood.

Nevertheless, there are clues as to Kagan’s legal mindset. Indeed, one such clue is also her primary shortcoming. Stuart Taylor explains:

The one issue that could slow down Kagan’s confirmation is her impassioned effort as dean to bar military recruiting on campus to protest the law banning openly gay people from serving in the military, which she called “a moral injustice of the first order.”

Kagan carried this opposition to the point of joining a 2005 amicus brief whose strained interpretation of a law denying federal funding to institutions that discriminate against military recruiters would — the Supreme Court held in an 8-0 decision — have rendered the statute “largely meaningless.” This helps to explain the 31 Republican votes against confirming her as solicitor general.

Well, that might be enough to lose her a batch of GOP Senate votes, but would it derail her nomination? Probably not. And it might just give enough comfort to the left that Kagan is a “safe” pick for them.

Elena Kagan is the prohibitive favorite for the Supreme Court. She has made it through one confirmation hearing for her current post as solicitor general and possesses academic credentials, a reputation for collegiality with conservatives, and a limited paper trail. Moreover, she is the closest we have to a stealth candidate among the front-runners. As Tom Goldstein notes, “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.”

Casual observers assume that a dean of Harvard Law School and a domestic-policy aide in the Clinton administration must have a sizable body of work reflecting her legal views. But not so. Paul Campos has read all there is to read — and it’s not much:

Yesterday, I read everything Elena Kagan has ever published. It didn’t take long: in the nearly 20 years since Kagan became a law professor, she’s published very little academic scholarship—three law review articles, along with a couple of shorter essays and two brief book reviews. Somehow, Kagan got tenure at Chicago in 1995 on the basis of a single article in The Supreme Court Review—a scholarly journal edited by Chicago’s own faculty—and a short essay in the school’s law review. She then worked in the Clinton administration for several years before joining Harvard as a visiting professor of law in 1999. While there she published two articles, but since receiving tenure from Harvard in 2001 (and becoming dean of the law school in 2003) she has published nothing. (While it’s true law school deans often do little scholarly writing during their terms, Kagan is remarkable both for how little she did in the dozen years prior to becoming Harvard’s dean, and for never having written anything intended for a more general audience, either before or after taking that position.)

Campos goes so far as to suggest that Kagan is a Harriet Miers type – minus the cronyism. He concludes:

Indeed, the most impressive thing about Kagan is that she seems to have a remarkable ability to ingratiate herself with influential people across the ideological spectrum. … As a private lawyer, Miers, after all, had a fairly good excuse for having no public views on the great legal issues of our day. For most of the past 20 years, Kagan’s job has been to both develop and publicize such views. That she has nevertheless managed to almost completely avoid doing so is rather extraordinary.

What to make of this? Well, if a Republican president were to select a person with such a skimpy written record, conservatives would be (and were with the Miers nomination) rightfully worried. But do the same concerns — ideological infidelity, intellectual mediocrity — really apply to Kagan? Let’s be honest, it works differently for liberals. Very few are tempted to moderate their views and slide rightward, while Republican-nominated jurists (David Souter, John Paul Stevens) have a history of “disappointing” their side. And while no one has claimed that Kagan has achieved greatness in legal scholarship, the assumption — rightly or not — is that the dean of one of the top law schools in the country must have some intellectual wattage. Nevertheless, liberal legal activists might have reason to be a bit nervous — after all, would a justice who lacks judicial chops be the best choice to sway Justice Kennedy on those all-important 5-to-4 decisions? Is she really the one who is going to go toe-to-toe with Justice Scalia? There is some risk there if Obama were to choose a lesser known quantity than an appellate judge such as Diane Wood.

Nevertheless, there are clues as to Kagan’s legal mindset. Indeed, one such clue is also her primary shortcoming. Stuart Taylor explains:

The one issue that could slow down Kagan’s confirmation is her impassioned effort as dean to bar military recruiting on campus to protest the law banning openly gay people from serving in the military, which she called “a moral injustice of the first order.”

Kagan carried this opposition to the point of joining a 2005 amicus brief whose strained interpretation of a law denying federal funding to institutions that discriminate against military recruiters would — the Supreme Court held in an 8-0 decision — have rendered the statute “largely meaningless.” This helps to explain the 31 Republican votes against confirming her as solicitor general.

Well, that might be enough to lose her a batch of GOP Senate votes, but would it derail her nomination? Probably not. And it might just give enough comfort to the left that Kagan is a “safe” pick for them.

Read Less




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