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Kagan confirmation hearing opens

Republicans express doubts that the U.S. solicitor general could serve impartially on the Supreme Court. 'No one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom,' she says in her opening statement.

June 28, 2010|By James Oliphant, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Seeking to blunt an impending Republican attack on her fitness for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan said Monday that if confirmed, she would consider every case "impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance to the law."

Kagan, tapped for the high court by President Obama in May, told the Senate Judiciary Committee on the first day of her confirmation hearing that as a justice she would listen to arguments from all sides "across every apparent political or ideological divide."

"No one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom," Kagan said.

Republican members of the committee expressed doubts Monday whether Kagan, who was a White House official during the Clinton administration, could set aside her political views and approach cases objectively.

"We don't have any substantive evidence to demonstrate your ability to transition from a legal scholar and political operative to a fair and impartial jurist," Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R- Iowa) told her.

Beyond that, Republicans made it clear they would grill her on a series of issues, including gun rights, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage and campaign finance regulation. They also voiced concern that she has never served as a judge.

"Ms. Kagan has less real legal experience of any nominee in at least 50 years," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the committee's top Republican. "It's not just that she has never been a judge. She has barely practiced law, and not with the intensity and duration from which real understanding occurs."

Democrats, conversely, praised her as a highly qualified candidate who would be able to distinguish between the role of policymaker and judge.

"There is no basis to question her integrity, and no one should presume that this intelligent woman, who has excelled during every part of her varied and distinguished career, lacks independence," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called Kagan's lack of judicial experience "refreshing," but Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) said Kagan's judicial philosophy "is almost invisible to us."

Kagan, 50, has served for the last year as the government's lawyer before the high court. Prior to her work in the Clinton White House, she was a dean of Harvard Law School and spent the majority of her career in academia. She's the youngest nominee to come before the committee since Clarence Thomas, who was 43, in 1991.

Of the Republicans, most eyes remained on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who bucked his party last year and supported then-nominee Sonia Sotomayor. On Monday, Graham was both complimentary of Kagan and skeptical. He defended her work as U.S. solicitor general, particularly in cases involving anti-terrorism policy, but said he was troubled by her efforts as Harvard Law School dean to deny military recruiters access to campus because of the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Several Republicans mentioned an article Kagan wrote while a law professor in 1995, in which she labeled Supreme Court confirmation hearings a "vapid and hollow charade," and they encouraged her to be frank about her political views. "It's OK to disagree with us," Graham told her.

Kagan and the administration aides who have been advising her may have another view. She's expected to testify before the committee over the next two days and perhaps into Thursday, and is likely to avoid straying into controversial territory as much as possible.

Prior to her opening statement, Kagan was introduced by Massachusetts Sens. John F. Kerry, a Democrat, and Scott Brown, a Republican — perhaps a politically savvy move. Brown's support could be instrumental in ensuring the GOP cannot filibuster Kagan's nomination.

Still, with Democrats holding 58 seats in the Senate, a clear path to the court seems almost assured, as one senator noted Monday.

"I don't want to take any suspense out of these proceedings," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), "but things are looking good for your confirmation."

joliphant@latimes.com

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