Kagan's symbolic choice
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?
Elena Kagan demonstrated leadership upon being appointed Dean of the Harvard Law School when she chose to be selected the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law. There were other named professorships that she could have selected, but she chose the Houston professorship. Some may ask why that is a big deal. The symbolism is significant.
Charles Hamilton Houston was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the Harvard Law School. After service in the Army during World War I -- where he was almost lynched by a group of white American soldiers because of their racist views of an African American military officer --
Houston returned to the United States and became one of the leading civil rights lawyers of the 20th century.
Houston became Dean of the Howard University School of Law where he converted a part-time program to a powerhouse of legal expertise in the areas of civil rights and human rights. Later as counsel to the NAACP, Houston developed the litigation strategy that eventually led to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Kagan sent a powerful signal to her colleagues and to the legal community by choosing to be named the Charles Hamilton Houston professor. That act demonstrated her commitment to the highest standards of professional achievement, and it also signaled her commitment to the ongoing quest to achieve equal justice under law for all citizens regardless of race or gender. During her tenure as Dean of Harvard Law School, her actions and decisions were consistent with the symbolic action that she made by choosing to be the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor.
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