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Obama chooses Kagan for high court, stresses her 'restraint'

Obama calls the U.S. solicitor general and first female dean of Harvard Law School a trailblazer. Kagan, who would be the youngest on the court, may come under fire by Senate Republicans for lack of judicial experience.

May 10, 2010|By Christi Parsons and David G. Savage, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Elena Kagan, top right, poses for a student activities organization club photo for the Hunter High School year book in 1976.
Elena Kagan, top right, poses for a student activities organization club…

Reporting from Washington — Calling her a "trailblazing lady," President Obama announced his nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court in a ceremony Monday morning in the White House.

Kagan had won accolades from "across the ideological spectrum," Obama said, praising her "openness to a broad array of viewpoints" and what he said was a "habit of understanding before disagreeing."

"She sought to recruit prominent conservatives" when she was dean of Harvard Law School, Obama said, and encouraged students to debate and find common ground in the practice of law. He also praised her work in support of everyday Americans as the government's chief lawyer and as a legal scholar.

"I think it says a great deal about her commitment to protect our fundamental rights," Obama said. "It says a great deal about the path Elena has chosen."

Kagan would replace Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement a month ago after almost 35 years on the high court. A confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee could take place in late June or early July. Kagan's confirmation would make history in one sense: It would mark the first time three women served on the Supreme Court.

The scene at the White House was reminiscent of Obama's public nomination of then-judge Sonia Sotomayor last year. The nominee's friends and political allies streamed through the White House grand foyer, a pianist playing as they awaited the announcement amid a festive atmosphere.

Administration officials hope the confirmation process will be like Sotomayor's too. Though Republicans lined up to grill Sotomayor, picking apart her judicial philosophy and the president's emphasis on her "empathy" as a qualifying attribute, she was confirmed without much trouble.

In that case, of course, Republican lawmakers were being cautious not to alienate Latino voters eager to see her ascend to the high court.

Kagan's constituency is much closer to the White House, evident in the gilt-trimmed East Room on Monday morning. Present in the room were fellow veterans from the Clinton administration. Obama introduced Kagan to the crowd as "my friend."

In his remarks, Obama lauded Stevens' commitment to "restraint and respect for precedent" and his awareness of the effect of judicial decisions on people.

"While we can't presume to replace his wisdom and experience," Obama said, Kagan can "ultimately provide that same kind of leadership on the court."

Kagan said she felt "blessed" to have represented the U.S. government before the Supreme Court, calling it "the most thrilling and humbling task a lawyer can perform."

She praised the work of Justice John Paul Stevens, noting his commitment to precedent -- a buzzword in the White House argument for adding Kagan to the court. The president has expressed great dismay that the court recently struck down campaign finance laws in its Citizens United decision, overturning decades of precedent. Administration officials say Kagan would be a backstop against that happening again.

"Law matters," Kagan told the crowd. "It keeps us safe. It protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms."

Like Stevens, Kagan has ties to Chicago. She taught alongside Obama at the University of Chicago Law School in the 1990s before joining the White House during the Clinton administration. There, she emerged as a top domestic policy adviser to the president. She went on to become Harvard Law School's first female dean and was credited for revitalizing the school.

Kagan was confirmed by the Senate last year as solicitor general by a 61-31 vote. As solicitor general, she argued for the government, and lost, the Citizens United case.

At age 50, Kagan would be the youngest member of the court and the only one without previous judicial experience. She also would be the fourth to have grown up in New York City, after Justices Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Kagan grew up in Manhattan and graduated from Hunter College High School.

She would be the third justice in a row to have gone to Princeton as an undergraduate. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sotomayor were also Princeton grads. Her appointment would also leave the court without a Protestant for the first time. Currently, six of the justices are Catholics and two are Jewish, as is Kagan.

As dean at Harvard, Kagan developed good relations with conservative professors, students and alumnae despite her progressive credentials.

She once hosted a celebratory dinner for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia when he marked his 20th anniversary on the high court, and another time she drew a standing ovation from members of the Federalist Society during a national convention on campus.

In part because of that track record, some liberal activists had come to consider Kagan one of the more conservative people on Obama's working list of potential nominees.

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