(Left to right) Vice President Joseph Biden, President Barack Obama, Solicitor General (nominee) Elena Kagan.
The Supreme Court is one of the president’s most lasting legacies and in his second year, President Obama will soon have named two justices.
By Yussuf J. Simmonds
Sentinel Managing Editor
On Monday morning, President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan, the U.S. Solicitor General, to be the next U.S. Supreme Court Justice and if she is confirmed, it will be the first time in the nation’s history that there will be three women sitting on the high court. In addition, all three would be from New York and at 50, Kagan would be the youngest justice on the court.
Also, if confirmed, it would be one of the rare occasions that a justice would arrive at the Supreme Court without any prior experience as a judge. (The only other recent justice on the Court without prior experience as a judge was the late William Rehnquist; he had been an assistant U.S. attorney general in the Department of Justice before being appointed to the Court). In that respect, there is precedent for President Obama’s nomination, and being a former professor of constitutional law, he knew that there would be an advantage to his rare nomination.
Court watchers and constitutional scholars have opined that because Kagan does not have any track record as a judge, it would lessen the tone of the debate that is now brewing on the conservative side of the aisle. It is judiciously important, however, to look into the nominee’s past, as best as it can be ascertained in order to arrive at what her rulings will be like, as a Supreme Court Justice, and to understand, of course, that a justice’s tenure is for life–which, in her case, will begin at 50.
Her experience includes being the dean of Harvard Law School, and as the solicitor general, she has already been vetted–though not as rigorously as what’s to come–by members of the U.S. Senate, and she sailed through with bi-partisan support.
In announcing her nomination while honoring the work of her predecessor, President Obama said, “While we can’t presume to replace Justice Stevens’ wisdom or experience, I have selected a nominee who I believe embodies that same excellence, independence, integrity, and passion for the law — and who can ultimately provide that same kind of leadership on the Court: our Solicitor General, and my friend, Elena Kagan.”
His introduction seemed to lay the groundwork for Kagan’s thoroughness and experience as a legal scholar. While not a mirror image of Justice Stevens but heading in that direction, he continued, “Elena is widely regarded as one of the nation’s foremost legal minds. She’s an acclaimed legal scholar with a rich understanding of constitutional law. She is a former White House aide with a lifelong commitment to public service and a firm grasp of the nexus and boundaries between our three branches of government. She is a trailblazing leader — the first woman to serve as Dean of Harvard Law School — and one of the most successful and beloved deans in its history. And she is a superb solicitor general, our nation’s chief lawyer representing the American people’s interests before the Supreme Court, the first woman in that position as well. And she has won accolades from observers across the ideological spectrum for her well-reasoned arguments and commanding presence.”
As expected, there are numerous differing reactions to the President’s announcement and the tone of some of those reactions may very well predict the quality of the upcoming debate in the Senate.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-9) chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued the following statement:
“Today, President Obama selected as his nominee for Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the first woman Solicitor General of the United States and first woman to be dean of Harvard Law School, Elena Kagan. We are pleased that the President has chosen another nominee with a real-world understanding of how the law is applied in the lives of the American people. In addition, Elena Kagan’s service in all three branches of government equips her with the comprehensive understanding of our system of law and government that is particularly necessary for a Supreme Court Justice today. The Congressional Black Caucus will be submitting questions to the Senate Judiciary Committee that reflect the special concerns of African Americans for a justice who will move the law forward and not threaten years of progress by the Supreme Court and the Congress for equal rights for African Americans and others. The CBC looks forward to evaluating her views on issues of importance to minorities.”
Though there is overwhelming support for the President especially within the Black community, there are also mixed feelings that he did not nominate a Black woman–or as some suggest–that a Black woman did not even factor into his consideration lineup. The Black Women’s Roundtable is of this mindset; they issued the following:
“The Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR) supports efforts to maintain a proper balance on the Supreme Court that protect the interests of all while simultaneously ensuring the Court is finally representative of all Americans in this society. Needless to say, we are disconcerted by the perceived lack of real consideration of any of the extremely qualified African American women as potential nominees. As we have throughout history, African American women played a significant role in the 2008 election because we were especially aware of the impact this presidency would have for generations to come. As the late Dr. Dorothy I. Height, founding board member of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and co-convener of BWR, stated in our previous meeting with the Administration, we believe it is time for African American women to be represented in all sectors of government–including the Supreme Court of the United States, which in its 221 year history has not had a Black woman nominated to serve on our highest court in the land.”
The Director of the Washington, DC., office of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, Haris Tarin, joined the chorus of those who stated their oganization’s position on the nomination. He said, “We call upon Ms. Kagan, if she is confirmed, to follow in the footsteps of Justice Stevens in his commitment to preserving individual freedoms, checking executive power, and upholding the rule of law which has made America a better place for over 35 years.”
Former President Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to appoint two liberal-minded justices, and since the last two justices appeared to have tilted the Court to the right, President Obama may have the last word as to the Court’s direction. (As a matter of fact, it was Clinton who floated the idea of nominating a justice without any experience as a judge).