News & Politics

Elena Kagan’s Kennedy Moment?

The Supreme Court nominee falters when asked why she wants to be a justice

In 1979, the late Senator Edward Kennedy’s campaign for presidency faltered when he was unable to give Roger Mudd a convincing answer to the question of why he wanted to be President. Solicitor General Elena Kagan had a similar moment in her confirmation hearings this morning when Senator Herb Kohl asked her why she wanted to serve on the Supreme Court. Her answer was revealing.

“It’s an opportunity to serve this country that fits with whatever talents I might have. I believe deeply in the rule of law,” she said “What motivates me primarily is the opportunity to safeguard the rule of law whatever issues might come before the court. That’s the critical thing. . . . A legislator might care about some particular issue, I care about the environment, or the economy, or something like that. A judge can’t think that way. A judge is taking each case that comes before her and is thinking about how to do justice in that case.”

It was a surprisingly bloodless response, and Kohl pushed her on it. “I’m sure that those things are true,” he said. “But Thurgood Marshall cared deeply about civil rights, Justice Ginsburg cared about women’s rights, your father cared deeply about tenant’s rights. I’m sure you’re a passionate woman. What are your passions?” The only response he got in return was Kagan’s demurral.

Supreme Court nomination hearings aren’t like presidential elections. A blunt answer that essentially consists of “because it’s there” to the question of why you want to serve is unusually honest and less harmful when you don’t have to sell yourself as relateable to hundreds of millions of American voters. But it still suggests an odd lack of thought about what Kagan is going to do once she’s there. Even if the true answer is that Kagan wants to serve on the Supreme Court because it’s the premier legal position in the United States, she must have spent some time considering what it’d be like to spend much of the rest of her life in the company of the eight other justices and on the clash of constitutional ideas. In the absence of that kind of clear idea, journalist Matthew Cooper joked in his Twitter feed, “Wondering if correct answer to passion question is: ‘I always wanted to go to culinary school and open a small inn in Napa.’ ”

Part of the reason Kagan’s answer was so odd is that she clearly feels the work the court does is important and even exciting. In her answer to whether she’d allow cameras in the courtroom to televise the Supreme Court’s proceedings, she gave an emphatic, optimistic yes. “When you see what’s happening there, it’s an inspiring sight,” she said. “[The justices are] so prepared, they’re so smart, they’re so thorough, they’re so engaged . . . you’re really seeing an institution of government at work I think in a really admirable way. The issues are important ones. . . . A lot of them, the American people really should be concerned about and interested in.”

Elena Kagan is an almost preternaturally composed woman. It’s nice to see that something about her potential new job breaks through her calm to find the flash of enthusiasm underneath.

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