She's got the skills
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?
It is useful to make a distinction between the skills needed to be a good judge and a good leader, on the one hand, and whether one has actually held the traditional role, on the other.
Consider the analogy of a university president or a foundation president. It is possible to list the skills needed for these positions (e.g ability to bring members of a voluntary organization together on conflict-loaded issues, on the part of the university president, or the capacity to make tough decisions and risk alienating friends, on the part of the foundation president) and see whether a candidate has those skills whether or not he/she happened already to have been a president of these respective organizations.
Turning to a Justice of the Supreme Court, one looks for legal knowledge, ability to work with peers, sensitivity to the political winds without simply following them, capacity to grow and change in a lifelong position, etc.
In the case of Elena Kagan, she seems well qualified, even though she has not been a judge. The fact that she was nominated to be a judge a decade ago indicates that even at that time, before she had been a successful law school dean, she was already considered to have the requisite skills.
As we have seen with judges who themselves have been raised to the High Court in recent decades, they do not necessarily display the capacity to work with peers or to grow in their lifelong posts. With that in mind I do not see deep problems in nominating an individual who is as capable as Elena Kagan.
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