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May 11, 2010

Former Chicago colleagues call Kagan "tough," "non-ideological"

Though John Paul Stevens (A.B. ‘41) is retiring from the Supreme Court next month, there may still be a former Hyde Parker on the bench next fall.

Former U of C Law School professor and U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan was nominated to the Court Monday morning by President Barack Obama. Kagan served as an assistant professor at the Law School from 1991 until 1995, overlapping with Obama’s tenure there.

She was appointed to a full professorship in 1995, but took a leave of absence to join the Clinton Administration’s White House legal team.

Known for her scholarship on the First Amendment, Kagan published articles such as “Regulation of Hate Speech and Pornography after R.A.V.” and “Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine” during her time at the Law School. These publications will likely come under scrutiny during her confirmation hearings in the Senate, since Kagan has never served as a judge before, meaning relatively little is publicly known about her legal philosophy.

According to her former Law School colleagues, Kagan has the qualities of a great justice. “Elena is a resolutely non-ideological person,” Law School professor David Strauss said in an e-mail interview. “She is great at asking hard questions. She does not approach issues with preconceived views; she tries to figure things out. She is practical and tough-minded.”

Law School professor and former provost Goeffrey Stone touted Kagan’s academic excellence. “Elena quickly established herself as a brilliant teacher, focusing particularly in the areas of constitutional and administrative law,” Stone said in a press release. “In the classroom, she was tough, sharp, and incisive. The students loved her classes.” Stone was also dean of the Law School during some of Kagan’s time at the University.

Current Dean Michael Schill knew Kagan as an undergraduate. “I have known Elena Kagan for almost 30 years—first as a fellow student at Princeton, then as a faculty member and dean. I believe she has all of the qualities of mind and temperament to make a spectacular justice of the Supreme Court. I am also proud that her career as a scholar was formed at the University of Chicago Law School. No other school in the nation trains the mind like ours,” Schill said in the same press release.

The 50-year-old Solicitor General of the United States has accomplished many firsts. After serving the Clinton Administration, she was the first female dean of Harvard Law School from 2003 to 2008. In 2009, she became the first female solicitor general, representing the federal government before the Supreme Court.

Despite Kagan’s accolades, Law School professor Gerald Rosenberg cautioned that her appointment is unlikely to shift the Court’s decision making in the near future.

Because she’s replacing the relatively liberal Stevens, Kagan will “make very little difference in terms of the political alignment of the court,” Rosenberg said in an interview. “However, [because she currently argues for Obama before the Court] she might be more deferential to the executive branch.”

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