Elena Kagan is a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and is only the fourth woman to hold the position. Inspired by her father's work at the Manhattan law firm Kagan & Lubic, she took an interest in law at an early age. In 2009, Kagan became the first woman to serve as solicitor general of the United States and the following year she was confirmed to the Supreme Court. She was also the first woman dean of Harvard Law School from 2003-2008.
Early Life and Education
Born April 28, 1960, in Manhattan to parents Gloria and Robert, Elena Kagan grew up as the second of three children in a middle-class Jewish family living on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Kagan's mother was an educator, teaching students at Hunter College Elementary School. Her father was a longtime partner at the Manhattan law firm Kagan & Lubic, working primarily with tenant associations. Both her parents were the children of Russian immigrants. Kagan has two brothers, Marc and Irving.
Kagan and her family lived in a third-floor apartment at West End Avenue and 75th Street and attended Lincoln Square Synagogue. She was independent and strong-willed in her youth and, according to a former law partner of her father's, clashed with her Orthodox rabbi, Shlomo Riskin, over aspects of her bat mitzvah.
"She had strong opinions about what a bat mitzvah should be like, which didn't parallel the wishes of the rabbi," her father's colleague said. Kagan and Riskin negotiated a solution. Riskin had never performed a ritual bat mitzvah before. She "felt very strongly that there should be ritual bat mitzvah in the synagogue, no less important than the ritual bar mitzvah. This was really the first formal bat mitzvah we had," he said. Kagan asked to read from the Torah on a Saturday morning as the boys did, but ultimately read from the Book of Ruth on a Friday night. She now practices Conservative Judaism.
Kagan's childhood friend Margaret Raymond recalled that she was a teenage smoker but not a partier. On Saturday nights, Raymond and Kagan were "more apt to sit on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and talk." Kagan also loved literature and reread Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice every year.
Kagan attended Hunter College High School, an all-girls school where her mother taught that she later cited as a formative experience in her life. "It was a very cool thing to be a smart girl, as opposed to some other, different kind," she says. "And I think that made a great deal of difference to me growing up and in my life afterward." The school had a reputation as one of the most elite learning institutions for high school girls and attracted students from all over New York City. Kagan emerged as one of the school's more outstanding students. She was elected president of the student government and served on a student-faculty consultative committee.
In her 1977 yearbook, she is pictured in a judge's robe and holding a gavel. Next to the photo is a quotation from former Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts."
COLLEGE AND CAREER
After graduating, Kagan attended Princeton University, where she earned a Bachelpr of Arts summa cum laude in history in 1981. She was particularly drawn to American history and archival research. She also earned the Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Fellow scholarship from her alma mater, which allowed her to attend Worcester College in Oxford, England. In 1983, she earned a master's degree in philosophy at Worcester before moving on immediately to Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she served as the supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 1986.
In 1987 Kagan was a law clerk for Judge Abner J. Mikva of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. She became one of Mikva's favorite clerks.
In 1988 Kagan clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall said he hired Kagan to help him put the "spark" back into his opinions as the court had been undergoing a conservative shift since William Rehnquist became Chief Justice in 1986. Marshall nicknamed the 5 ft 3-inch Kagan "Shorty".
During this period, she also worked for Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, but after Dukakis lost his bid, Kagan headed to the private sector to work as an associate at the Washington D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly. As a junior associate, she drafted briefs and conducted discovery. During her short time at the firm she handled five lawsuits that involved First Amendment or media law issues and libel issues.
After three years at Williams & Connolly, Kagan returned to academia—this time as a professor. In 1991, she began teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, and by 1995, she was a tenured professor of law. While there she first met Barack Obama, a guest lecturer at the school. While on the UC faculty, Kagan published a law review article on the regulation of First Amendment hate speech in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul; an article discussing the significance of governmental motive in regulating speech; and a review of a book by Stephen L. Carter discussing the judicial confirmation process. In the first article, which became highly influential, Kagan argued that the Supreme Court should examine governmental motives when deciding First Amendment cases and analyzed historic draft-card burning and flag burning cases in light of free speech arguments.
Before Clinton left office in 1999, he nominated Kagan to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit. However, her nomination languished with the Senate Judiciary Committee and in Kagan returned to higher education. Starting as a visiting professor at Harvard Law, Kagan quickly climbed the ladder from professor in 2001 to dean in 2003. During her five years as the first female dean of Harvard Law, Kagan made big changes at the institution, including faculty expansion, curriculum changes and the development of new campus facilities.
In 2009, Kagan became the first female Solicitor General of the United States. President Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court to fill the vacancy arising from the impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens. The United States Senate confirmed her nomination by a vote of 63 to 37. She is considered part of the Court's liberal wing but tends to be one of the more moderate justices of that group. She wrote the majority opinion in Cooper v. Harris, a landmark case restricting the permissible uses of race in drawing congressional districts. She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Clarence Thomas.
Elena Kagan Photo by Susan Walsh, Associated Press