Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Obama Nominates Kagan For Supreme Court

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is joined by Vice President Joe Biden (L) while introducing Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his choice to be the nation's 112th Supreme Court justice during an event in the East Room of the White House May 10, 2010 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla
U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is joined by Vice President Joe Biden (L) while introducing Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his choice to be the nation's 112th Supreme Court justice during an event in the East Room of the White House May 10, 2010 in Washington, DC.

President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, praising her as a consensus builder who would make an outstanding justice.

Elena Kagan

Age: 50

Born: New York City

Religion: Jewish

Family: Single, no children

Education: Princeton, AB, 1981; M.Phil., Oxford, 1983; Harvard Law School, JD 1986

Career highlights: Law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, 1987-88; professor, University of Chicago Law School, 1991-97; deputy domestic policy director, White House, 1997-99; dean, Harvard Law School, 2003-2009; U.S. solicitor general, 2009-present

Obama, flanked by Kagan and Vice President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House, called on Senate Republicans and Democrats to swiftly confirm Kagan, who he said had demonstrated "her openness to a wide array of viewpoints."

"Elena Kagan is widely regarded as one of the nation's foremost legal minds," the president said.


Kagan said she was "honored and humbled by this nomination" to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, calling it "the honor of a lifetime."

As solicitor general, she said she had been "blessed to represent the United States before the Supreme Court," which she described as "an extraordinary institution" that had the potential to change Americans' lives for the better.

Kagan, 50, would be the youngest member of the current court if she is confirmed and the only justice who has not served previously as a judge. Her presence would result in three female justices on the nine-member court for the first time in its history.

The president noted that Kagan's first case as solicitor general was to argue for maintaining a cap on corporate donations to political campaigns in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Although she lost that case, Obama said, the fact that she was willing to take it on "says a great deal about Elena Kagan."

Obama informed Kagan of his decision Sunday night and then phoned the three federal judges he did not choose for the position: Diane Wood, Merrick Garland and Sidney Thomas. The president began calling Senate leaders with the news early Monday as his White House team prepared to launch a broad campaign-style outreach designed to shape the national image of Kagan, an unknown figure to much of America.


The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), said Kagan should be confirmed before Labor Day. "Our constituents deserve a civil and thoughtful debate on this nomination, followed by an up-or-down vote," he said.

But Republicans cautioned against a rush to confirm. "Judges must not be a rubber-stamp for any administration," said Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) echoed McConnell, saying it is the Senate's duty to "give Ms. Kagan's record a full and fair review."

As solicitor general, Kagan is the Obama administration's top Supreme Court lawyer — the first woman to fill that position. Prior to that, she was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School, where she subsequently won widespread praise for ending long-standing faculty wars.

Martha L. Minow, who succeeded Kagan at Harvard, described her as "a brilliant teacher, important scholar and astonishingly effective dean."

"Her decency, her skill at making almost anything better, her intellectual and interpersonal talents, and her integrity make this an outstanding nomination," Minow told NPR in an e-mail.

Kagan served in a number of top positions in President Clinton's White House until 1999, when Clinton nominated her to the federal appeals court in Washington. However, the Republican-controlled Senate never took up her nomination.

Kagan would be the first justice without judicial experience in almost 40 years. The last two were William H. Rehnquist and Lewis F. Powell Jr., both of whom joined the court in 1972.

If confirmed, she also would become the third Jewish justice on the current court, which has six Catholics. With Stevens' exit, there would be no Protestants.

Kagan's fate will be up to a Senate dominated by Democrats, who with 59 votes have more than enough to confirm her, though they are one shy of being able to halt any Republican stalling effort. Barring any surprises, Kagan is likely to emerge as a justice.

Although Republicans did not immediately signal that they would try to prevent a vote on Kagan, they are certain to grill her in confirmation hearings over her experience, her thin record of legal writings and her objections to the military's policy about gays.

As Harvard Law School dean, Kagan openly railed against the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding gay service members. She called it discriminatory and barred military recruiters over the matter until the move threatened to cost the university federal money.

Kagan later joined a challenge to a law allowing colleges to be stripped of federal money if they kept out the military recruiters. But the Supreme Court upheld that law unanimously.

When she was confirmed as solicitor general in 2009, only seven Republicans backed her.

For the second straight summer, the nation can expect an intense Supreme Court confirmation debate. Democrats went 15 years without a Supreme Court appointment until Obama chose federal appellate Judge Sonia Sotomayor last year to succeed retiring Justice David Souter. Just 16 months in office, Obama has a second opportunity with Kagan, under different circumstances.

Obama's decision last year centered much on the compelling narrative of Sotomayor, who grew up in a housing project and overcame hardship to become the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.

Kagan, who is unmarried, was born in New York City. She holds a bachelor's degree from Princeton, a master's degree from Oxford and a law degree from Harvard.

In 1988, she became a Supreme Court clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall. Before that, she clerked for federal appeals court Judge Abner Mikva, who later became an important political mentor to Obama in Chicago.

Kagan said at the White House event that Mikva represents "the best in public service." And she praised Marshall, one of her legal heroes, as having done "more to promote justice over the course of his legal career than did any lawyer in his lifetime." The president joked Monday that the late justice reciprocated by calling her "Shorty."

Kagan and Obama both taught at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1990s.

In her current job, Kagan represents the U.S. government and defends acts of Congress before the Supreme Court and decides when to appeal lower court rulings.

The White House is expected to frame Kagan's lack of service as a judge in upbeat terms, underscoring that there are many qualified routes to the top of the judiciary.

She faces the high task of following John Paul Stevens, who leaves a legacy that includes the preservation of abortion rights, protection of consumer rights, and limits on the death penalty and executive power. He used his seniority and his smarts to form majority votes.