Obama’s Second Supreme Court Nominee: Who is Elena Kagan?

BY Talea Miller  May 10, 2010 at 10:03 AM EST

President Obama has nominated U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to become the 112th justice on the Supreme Court. During an East Room ceremony on Monday, President Obama described Kagan “as one of the nation’s foremost legal minds,” and called on the Senate to move swiftly to confirm her.

If confirmed, Kagan, 50, would become the first non-judge to serve on the Supreme Court since 1972. Kagan’s confirmation would also bring a third female to the bench for the first time in the high court’s history.

Kagan is the nation’s first female solicitor general, charged with arguing on behalf of the government in front of the Supreme Court. She was nominated to the post in January 2009 and won Senate confirmation three months later by a vote of 61 to 31.

Before becoming solicitor general — a position often referred to as the “10th justice” — Kagan served as dean of the Harvard Law School, a position she was appointed to by Lawrence Summers, the university’s former president and current director of President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

During her tenure at Harvard, Kagan built a reputation as a consensus builder, bridging sometimes deep ideological divides among the school’s faculty.

As dean, Kagan was a frequent critic of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy banning gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services. She called the policy “a moral injustice of the first order,” and briefly barred military recruiters from using campus services. In 2004, Kagan signed a legal brief petitioning the Supreme Court to reverse the Solomon Amendment, a law that denies federal funding to colleges and universities that bar military recruiters from campus. After the court upheld the Solomon rule, Kagan allowed recruiters back.

Kagan joined Harvard from the Clinton White House. She started as an associate counsel before becoming deputy assistant and then deputy director of the president’s Domestic Policy Council. In 1999, President Clinton nominated Kagan for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Her nomination stalled, however, after Congressional Republicans declined to schedule a confirmation hearing.

Prior to her White House years, Kagan was a faculty member at the University of Chicago Law School, where she taught alongside Barack Obama, then a Constitutional law professor at the university. She joined the faculty in 1991 after a stint with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Williams & Connolly.

Kagan clerked for Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall from 1987 to 1988. She also clerked for Abner Mikva when he was on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“She is a brilliant person,” Mikva told the NewsHour. “I had a lot of bright law clerks, she was clearly one of the brightest.”

Kagan graduated summa cum laude with a degree in history from Princeton University in 1981. She also holds a master’s degree in philosophy from Oxford’s Worcester College, as well as a law degree from Harvard, where she graduated magna cum laude.

Richard Fallon, who hired Kagan as a research assistant during her law school days at Harvard, described her as “very practical.” Most academics “are dreamy utopians,” Fallon told the NewsHour. “It is much more characteristic of Elena to know how is one or another proposal going to work in practice. ‘Is there something we can do instead of what is proposed that is better, more practical?’ These are questions she asks again and again.”