U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan ’86 and HLS Dean Martha Minow engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about the current high court and Kagan’s storied career, during the Honorable S. William Green Lecture in Public Law.
Minow asked Kagan a series of questions, ranging from her favorite classes when she was a student at HLS (civil procedure and torts, along with Larry Tribe’s constitutional law course) to whether she found it challenging to put aside personal feeling when arguing a case as solicitor general, the position she held for more than a year before President Obama appointed her to the Supreme Court last year (Kagan said it was not a struggle, as she recognized her role was to serve the government’s long-term interests.)
Despite often sharp ideological differences or approaches to constitutional interpretation, the high court is a warm and collegial place, Kagan said, noting that the two justices with the closest friendship are Antonin Scalia ’60 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg ’56-’58. Arguments over the legal issues before them don’t affect personal relationships, because the justices are keenly aware they will be serving together for years to come. In response to a student’s question, Kagan said the Court often makes its best decisions when there are strongly divergent viewpoints because the justices listen carefully to each other even as they continue to disagree, and the institution and the nation benefit from this range of thoughtful perspectives.
Asked by another student about serving as the Court’s fourth female justice, Kagan said she doesn’t believe gender makes any difference in the Court’s decision-making process; however, the fact that there are currently three women on the Court—and that visiting groups of young people see this as only natural—speaks to the incredible progress women have made in the past generation, she added.
As the only member of the Supreme Court without prior experience as a judge, Kagan said she is still experimenting with the mechanics of the job, including what tasks she assigns to her four clerks. She said she uses her clerks to discuss cases and provide her with suggested questions for oral argument, and that she has a clerk write the first draft of her opinions. However, she always rewrites each opinion entirely, no matter how well-written, she said, because she thinks problems through by writing, and she wants her own distinctive voice to be clear.
The Green Lecture marked the establishment of The Honorable S. William Green Professorship of Public Law at HLS, established by Patricia Freiberg Green in honor of her husband, Congressman Bill Green ’53. The Hon. S. William Green Professorship is held by Professor David Barron ’94.