WASHINGTON – Calling her “one of the nation’s foremost legal minds,” President Obama today announced his nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court seat being vacated by Justice John Paul Stevens. If confirmed, Kagan, 50, would be the youngest justice and the third woman on the current court. Republicans are expected to oppose her nomination by pointing out that she has never served as a judge.
During a press conference at the White House, Obama thanked departing Justice Stevens — “a giant in the law” — for his service, and said Kagan would bring the “same excellence, independence, integrity and passion for the law” and the “same kind of leadership” that Justice Stevens brought to the court.
Kagan said she was “honored and humbled” by the nomination, calling it a “special honor” to fill Justice Stevens’ seat. She said that working for the Supreme Court is the “most thrilling and the most humbling task a lawyer can perform.”
Kagan’s confirmation would bring the number of women on the bench to three, along with Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg . “I relish the prospect of three women taking the seat on the Supreme Court for the first time in history,” Obama said.
Because Kagan was never a judge, her nomination echoes Obama’s claim to be moving beyond the “judicial monastery.” It will be the first time since President Nixon’s 1972 nomination of William Rehnquist that someone without prior judicial experience is appointed to the high court. The current justices each served as federal appeals courts judges.
President Clinton nominated Kagan in 1999 to serve on the D.C. Circuit, but the Senate never granted her a hearing.
Obama urged the Senate to confirm Kagan’s nomination “as swiftly as possible,” so that she can participate in hearing cases as the Supreme Court’s 2010 session kicks off this fall.
Kagan was a runner-up to Obama’s Supreme Court pick last year, Justice Sotomayor. She grew up in Manhattan and attended Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law School.
She was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard Law School and the first woman to be solicitor general, representing the government before the Supreme Court, a position that’s often referred to as the “tenth justice.”
She was confirmed as solicitor general in March 2009 by a 61-31 vote. If confirmed to the Supreme Court, her previous work as solicitor general might mean that she has to sit out of some rulings when she first gets to the bench.
Kagan would be the third Jewish justice on the bench, along with Justices Stephen Breyer and Ginsburg, and the eighth in the history of the court.
Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a press conference following the announcement, “It would be hard to find people in this country that stand out as a greater legal scholar than she does.” He cited Kagan’s “breadth of … real life experience.”
“I’m grateful to see someone nominated outside the judicial monastery,” he said.
“She will be confirmed,” he added, dismissing questions about her lack of judicial experience.
“The president could name Moses the lawgiver and people would say, ‘Where is his birth certificate?'” Leahy said.
He pointed out that Senate Republicans pocket-filibustering her nomination to the D.C. Circuit during the Clinton administration. “We can’t say on one hand, we blocked her nomination, and then on the other, she hasn’t served as a judge,” he said.
Leahy called for “civil and thoughtful debate” on the nomination, saying the Senate was acting as the “conscience” of the nation in making the lifetime confirmation. “There are 300 million Americans that are going to be affected by this nomination,” he said. “There are only 100 Americans that get to vote on it.”
Kagan’s confirmation hearings are expected to begin in the last week of June or early July. Leahy said he expected the hearings to go smoothly because they will be dealing with the same issues that they did last year during Kagan’s nomination as solicitor general.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of seven Republicans to approve Kagan’s nomination as solicitor general, said in a statement today, “I will examine Ms. Kagan’s entire record to understand her judicial philosophy. My conclusion will be based on evidence, not blind faith. Her previous confirmation, and my support for her in that position, do not by themselves establish either her qualifications for the Supreme Court or my obligation to support her.”
Kagan could be confirmed by early August. Justice Sotomayor, who was nominated in late May 2009, took the oath in August 2009.
Obama had been considering about 10 names since Justice Stevens announced his retirement on April 9. Other possible nominees were federal appeals court Judges Merrick Garland of Washington, Diane Wood of Chicago and Sidney Thomas of Montana.