President Obama and Elena Kagan discuss her nomination at the White House. (AP photo)
Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s pick to fill Justice John Paul Stevens’s seat on the Supreme Court, could become a voice for education rights, thanks to her background as an esteemed professor who comes from a family of educators.
Kagan was born in New York City in 1960. Her father was a lawyer and former chairman of a community board on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, while her mother taught for many years at Hunter College Elementary School. Her two brothers are also teachers.
“My mother was a proud public school teacher, as are my two brothers—the kind of teachers whom students remember for the rest of their lives,” said Kagan during her May 10 nomination. “My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”
Said Obama during her nomination: “…they instilled in Elena not just the value of a good education, but the importance of using it to serve others.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree from Princeton University, she attended Worcester College, Oxford, until 1983. After Oxford, Kagan attended Harvard Law School and graduated in 1986.
From 1986 to 1987, Kagan clerked for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit Court. The next year, she clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She worked as an associate in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Williams & Connolly from 1989 to 1991.
Kagan began her academic career at the University of Chicago Law School, where she became an assistant professor in 1991 and a tenured professor of law in 1995. It was there that she met Obama, who was teaching as an adjunct professor.
“My professional life has been marked by great good fortune. I clerked for a judge, Abner Mikva, who represents the best in public service, and for a justice, Thurgood Marshall, who did more to promote justice over the course of his legal career than did any lawyer in his lifetime,” she said.
From 1995 to 1999, Kagan served in the White House, first as associate counsel to the president in 1995 to 1996 and then as a domestic policy aide. She worked on the White House response to the settlement of tobacco lawsuits reached by state attorney generals.
Kagan came to Harvard as a visiting professor and became a law professor in 2001. While on the faculty, she taught administrative law, constitutional law, civil procedure, and seminars on issues involving the separation of powers. She was appointed dean of the law school in 2003—the first woman to be given this position. As dean, she revamped the grading system, the curriculum, and made major capital improvements—from fresh coats of paint in classrooms to a new gymnasium, reported The Wall Street Journal.
Kagan also hired new employees at the law school, including both conservative and liberal scholars.
“…Elena is respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints, her habit, to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens, of understanding before disagreeing, her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus-builder,” said Obama during the nomination. “And she encouraged students from all backgrounds to respectfully exchange ideas and seek common ground. Because she believes, as I do, that exposure to a broad array of perspectives is the foundation not just for a sound legal education, but of a successful life in the law.”
Not much is known about Kagan’s judicial philosophy, but as dean of Harvard Law she was instrumental in beefing up the school’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society by recruiting Lawrence Lessig and others who take a strong position on “fair use” in copyright disputes, according to reports.