Caring for society
Q: In appointing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace John Paul Stevens, President Obama was seeking someone who could provide intellectual and personal leadership of the liberal block. His gamble in nominating Elena Kagan is bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood' of appeals-court judges. What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications?
Experience as a jurist certainly is a significant factor in a Supreme Court nomination, but we shouldn't overstate its importance when we consider that Elena Kagan possesses other qualities that are equally, if not more, important.
A Supreme Court justice must be someone of the highest professional and personal integrity, and she clearly fits that description. Just take a look at the resume she has assembled in her 50 years: degrees from Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard, law clerk for Justice Thurgood Marshall, Senate staffer, White House aide, Harvard Law School dean, U.S. solicitor general. She could not have built such an impressive career if she were not a person of supreme integrity. Nor could she have reached such heights without a great level of competence and mastery of the laws of the land.
Also in Ms. Kagan's favor is her very successful track record as a dean at Harvard. She fostered an atmosphere of collaboration and collegiality in her time there. A dean must often rely on her power of persuasion, because every day in academia presents new challenges that test her capacity to persuade, to guide her constituents to a place where understanding can be reached and progress can be made. Elena Kagan has demonstrated that she has this skill, and it's something she has in common with every outstanding jurist who has ever sat on the high court.
A justice has to care about the law, but I think a justice also must care about society. Ms. Kagan's background in academia speaks to this requirement. People generally go into the academic profession to do good, to make a difference in the world. She was a full professor, and the real payday for a professor is when a student goes on to outperform the teacher. Such a generous, thoughtful, humanistic viewpoint should be welcome on any court.
One disadvantage of nominating someone with no bench experience is that we're more likely to see a bitter hearing in the Senate. But given Ms. Kagan's integrity, motivation, understanding, knowledge, and experience, I think she has the capacity to become a great leader on the court.
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