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Elena Kagan: From Obama Jewish proxy to Supreme Court pick

By Ron Kampeas, JTA

May 10, 2010 | 10:21 am

U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, speaking at Harvard Law School, has been tapped by President Obama to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. (Harvard Law Record)

U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, speaking at Harvard Law School, has been tapped by President Obama to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. (Harvard Law Record)

Elena Kagan would make it three—three women and three Jews on the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time in its history.

President Obama, announcing Monday the nomination of his solicitor general to fill retiring Justice John Paul Stevens’ seat on the Supreme Court, made one historical element of the nomination explicit; the other was implied.

“She would relish, as I do, the prospect of three women taking their seats on the Supreme Court for the first time in history,” Obama said of Kagan’s late mother, who fought gender discrimination as a lawyer.

The implied reference to Kagan’s Jewishness—joining Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer—also arose in reference to her parents at the announcement, delivered at the White House alongside Vice President Joe Biden. Both Obama and Kagan referred to her late parents as “children of immigrants.”

Did you know?

Elena Kagan actually clashed with her rabbi at her bat mitzvah over a certain aspect of the ceremony.

The immigrant staus of her grandparents, Kagan said, instilled in her parents a belief in the right of “all Americans, regardless of their background or beliefs, to get a fair hearing and an equal chance at justice.”

Kagan—whose years in the upper reaches of academe have not softened her long, oval New York-bred vowels—got to know Obama through her association with Abner Mikva, the Chicago-area former federal judge who mentored both of them as young lawyers making their way in Chicago. Kagan tried to persuade Obama to seek tenure at the University of Chicago, where he taught for a time, but he had other plans.

Mikva became one of Obama’s most prominent backers as the president’s political career was launched in the mid-1990s. The former judge often would make Obama’s case to the Jewish community.

Kagan, 50, likely would not face Republican opposition in U.S. Senate confirmation hearings. A number of leading conservatives have endorsed her as a moderate.

As dean at Harvard Law, Kagan sought to redress what she perceived as an ideological imbalance by hiring conservative professors.

Conservatives on Monday issued statements critical of Kagan, particularly for resisting military recruitment at Harvard because of the military’s discriminatory policies against gays.

However, U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), a member of the Senate Republican leadership, told CNN that a filibuster was unlikely. Obama wants Kagan confirmed by the August congressional recess.

Jewish groups that have surveyed the likely picks—Obama reportedly was down to four—have been enthusiastic about the prospect of a Kagan candidacy.

“She’s intellectually brilliant, and politically gifted at finding common ground and finding consensus,” Rabbi David Saperstein, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, said when Obama picked Kagan to be his solicitor general.

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