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A Reader’s Guide to the Elena Kagan Confirmation Hearings


The Supreme Court will mark two pivotal moments on Monday: the start of the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings and the official end to the tenure of one of its longest-serving justices, John Paul Stevens. Stevens will take his seat on the bench for the last time Monday before he retires.

Since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1789, presidents have made 160 nominations to the Supreme Court and since the early 1800s, those nominees have faced lawmaker approval.

On Monday, Kagan becomes the latest nominee to face Senators weighing her acension to the Supreme Court. As Kagan prepares to face the statements, questions and testimony that comprise this sometimes fiery political process, two veteran NewsHour journalists, long-time Capitol Hill producer Linda Scott and senior correspondent Judy Woodruff, shared what informed viewers of the hearings should be watching for this week.

Linda Scott’s list of tips on being a savvy viewer:

*When Kagan enters the room, she’ll most likely greet and exchange pleasantries with the Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and ranking Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Her entourage will include someone designated from the White House to help shepherd her through the Capitol Hill process.

* The first day will be well-attended by members on both sides of the aisle and by members of the media. After the second day, you’ll see fewer and fewer members of the media in the audience. Senators on the second and third day will likely shuffle in and out, depending on how the hearing is going.

* Sen. Sessions is the designated pit-bull on the GOP side of the aisle and will try to question some of her writings during the question and answer portion of the process – particularly her stance on military recruitment.

* Though signs of any kind are not allowed in the room, a heckler almost always tries to disrupt the proceedings. They may not necessarily be wearing the standard dark suit of the Capitol Hill set.

*You can usually tell after the first day of questioning if the hearings will pack any kind of punch. Look for probing questions Republicans ask or if Kagan seems unsure or stumbles through her answers. She has already completed a walk-through of the Hart building, and the committee room. You can bet she’s been through mock hearings and has been training for the process.

* Among the senators you may want to watch: Sessions, Orrin Hatch, Lindsey Graham and, for possible comic relief, Al Franken.

And from Judy Woodruff:

I expect what will be different about these hearings from previous Supreme Court confirmation hearings is that there will be far more focus on Kagan’s political and academic writings and views.1208_judywoodruff.jpg Because she has never served as a judge and has no body of written decisions for the judiciary committee members to pore over, there will be extensive questioning about her writings and speeches as a law student, a Supreme Court law clerk, an aide in the Clinton White House and as Dean of the Harvard Law School.

Republicans will certainly ask about her role in crafting language about abortion as a domestic policy adviser under President Clinton. She’ll also likely be challenged about her role as the current Solicitor General and, among other things, on the decision to ask the Supreme Court to overturn a 2007 Arizona immigration enforcement law.

And she’ll likely be pressed about statements such as her praise, while Dean at Harvard, of an activist Israeli Supreme Court Justice, whom she stated was ” the judge … in my lifetime who(m) … has best advanced the values of democracy and human rights, of the rule of law, and of justice.”

Democrats will ask questions designed to demonstrate her suitability for the Supreme Court, especially on her intellect and her moderation on controversial issues. They will ask questions aimed at giving her a chance to correct any negative impressions that may be left during Republican questions.

Judy Woodruff is anchoring live coverage of the Kagan hearings from Capitol Hill, featuring the analysis of the National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle, Watch it live on your local PBS station or right here at the Online NewsHour. The hearings start Monday at 12:30pm ET.

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