Biography of Elena Kagan

Fourth Woman to Serve as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan
U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan answers questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during her 2010 confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images 

Elena Kagan is one of nine U.S. Supreme Court justices, and only the fourth woman to hold a position on the nation's highest court since its first session in 1790. She was nominated to the court in 2010 by then-President Barack Obama, who described her as “one of the nation’s foremost legal minds.” The U.S. Senate confirmed her nomination later that year, making her the 112th justice to serve on the Supreme Court.

Kagan replaced Justice John Paul Stevens, who had retired after 35 years on the court.

Education

  • Hunter College High School in Manhattan, New York, class of 1977.
  • Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey; she earned a bachelor's degree in history in 1981.
  • Worcester College in Oxford, England; she earned a master’s degree in philosophy in 1983.
  • Harvard University Law School; she earned a law degree in 1986.

Career in Academia, Politics and Law

Before she took a seat on the Supreme Court, Kagan worked as a professor, an attorney in private practice and as solicitor general of the United States. She was the first woman to supervise the office that handles litigation for the federal government before the Supreme Court. 

Here are Kagan's career highlights

  • 1986 to 1987: Law clerk for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C., Circuit.
  • 1988: Law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the court.
  • 1989 to 1991: Associate attorney in the powerful Washington, D.C., law firm of Williams & Connolly, which was co-founded by Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary trial lawyer who represented the likes of John Hinckley Jr., Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, Jimmy Hoffa and Joseph McCarthy.
  • 1991 to 1995: Assistant professor of law, then tenured professor of law, at the University of Chicago Law School.
  • 1995 to 1996: Associate counsel to President Bill Clinton.
  • 1997 to 1999: Deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, and deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council under Clinton.
  • 1999 to 2001: Visiting professor of law at Harvard Law School.
  • 2001: Professor of law at Harvard Law School, teaching administrative law, constitutional law, civil procedure, and separation of powers theory.
  • 2003 to 2009: Dean of the Harvard Law School.
  • 2009 to 2010: Solicitor general under President Barack Obama.
  • 2010 to current: Associated justice of the Supreme Court.

Controversies

Kagan's tenure on the Supreme Court has been relatively free of controversy. Yes, even Supreme Court justice invite scrutiny; ask Justice Clarence Thomas, whose absolute silence during almost seven years of oral arguments baffled court observers, legal scholars and journalists. Justice Samuel Alito, one of the most conservative voices on the court, has openly criticized his fellow members, particularly following the court's landmark decision on same-sex marriage. And the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who was famous for his unrestrained opinions, once said homosexuality should be a crime.

The biggest dustup surrounding Kagan was a request for her to recuse herself from consideration of a challenge to Obama's health care law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare for short.

Kagan's office of solicitor general under Obama had been on record as supporting the act in a legal proceeding. A group called Freedom Watch challenged Kagan's judicial independence. The court declined to entertain the allegation.

Kagan's liberal personal beliefs and style of writing also came back to haunt her during her confirmation hearings. Conservative Republicans accused her of being unable to set aside her biases. "In her memos to Justice Marshall as well as her work for Clinton, Kagan consistently wrote from her own perspective, prefacing her advice with 'I think' and 'I believe' and distinguishing her opinions from other members of Clinton's White House team or from the president's own opinions," said Carrie Severino of the Conservative Judicial Crisis Network.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, a conservative Republican who would later serve in Donald Trump's administration, said: "A troubling pattern has already emerged in Ms.

Kagan's record. Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a willingness to make legal decisions based not on the law but instead on her very liberal politics."

As dean of the Harvard Law School, Kagan drew fire for her objection to having military recruiters on campus because she believed the federal government policy that banned openly gay individuals from serving in the military violated the university's anti-discrimination policy.

Personal Life

Kagan was born and raised in New York City; her mother was a school teacher and her father was an attorney. She is unmarried and has no children.

5 Important Quotes 

Kagan has not granted interviews with the news media, so court observers are left to scour her opinions, briefs and testimony during her confirmation hearings. Here are some select quotes on key issues.

  • "Sometimes you read these opinions and you think 'they must hate each other.' It's just not true. We have enormous respect for each other and a feeling that we are all operating in good faith. ... If you take this stuff personally, this is going to be a long life tenure." - Kagan speaking about the collegiality among the justices and the court, which she described as "in some ways, the most intimate, warmest institution I've participated in."
  • “If you confirm me, you’ll be getting Justice Kagan. You won’t get Justice Marshall.” - Kagan defending herself against claims from Republican U.S. senators that she was a "legal progressive," or judicial activist, during her confirmation hearings.
  • "The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals. But the Court must also recognize the limits on itself and respect the choices made by the American people." - Kagan, explaining her philosophy of judicial restraint.
  • "All I can say about that paper is that it is dangerous to write papers about the law before you've spent a day in law school. I wrote that paper before I spent a day in law school. I was trying to think about whether to go to law school and I decided to write a paper about law in order to figure out whether I was interested in the subject... So I would just ask you to recognize that I didn't know a whole lot of law." - Kagan telling lawmakers to ignore a paper she wrote about justice who "mold and steer" the law.

  • "It means I'd have to get my hair done more often, Sen. Specter." Kagan replying to U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter's question about allowing television cameras in U.S. Supreme Court arguments..

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Murse, Tom. "Biography of Elena Kagan." ThoughtCo, Mar. 30, 2018, thoughtco.com/biography-of-elena-kagan-4161102. Murse, Tom. (2018, March 30). Biography of Elena Kagan. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-elena-kagan-4161102 Murse, Tom. "Biography of Elena Kagan." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/biography-of-elena-kagan-4161102 (accessed April 22, 2018).