By recent standards, Elena Kagan has an unconventional background.
Kagan would be the first justice without judicial experience in almost 40 years. The last two were William H. Rehnquist and Lewis F. Powell Jr., both of whom joined the court in 1972.
This is not a good thing.
At least, she is a law professor, not an environmentalist poet. But even a dean and law professor is coming out of an ivory-tower academic milieu in many respects far more untethered from reality than the bench and far, far more culturally left wing.
MSNBC sums up her entire background.
She is close to Obama. She evidently attempted to recruit him as a full-time law school faculty member at Chicago.
Obama is thought by some to have chosen her as an intellectual counterweight to Chief Justice Roberts. But I think she was probably really chosen on the basis of her collegiality and talent for negotiation and persuasion, as demonstrated by her performance as Dean of Harvard Law School.
Deans of elite major academic institutions of that kind must be personable and articulate enough to function as public figures and institutional symbols. A dean is also an administrative officer presiding over a restive community of powerful interest groups quite capable of making serious trouble when not satisfied and handled with tact. The dean of Harvard Law is, of course, inevitably an operator, a thoroughgoing realist and pragmatist skilled at getting her way, but knowing very well what the limits of possibility and acceptability are.
She is short, plump, unattractive, and of heavily ethnic appearance. She must be quite brilliant and possess enormous personal charm to have overcome those obstacles to become Dean of Harvard Law.
I think Obama is right to believe she is likely to be influential at the Supreme Court through personal charm and persuasion.
Media Matters is hastily assuring everyone that she is not a radical or a socialist.
Well, no dean of Harvard Law School can possibly be regarded as really radical. But there can be no doubt that she is an echt liberal Jewish law professor with strong roots on the political left. She clerked for Thurgood Marshall, and has referred to him as “the greatest lawyer of the 20th century.” Obviously, that particular opinion demonstrates a powerful emotional connection with Civil-Rights-ism and complete identification with the conventional leftwing narrative of the progressive triumph over American oppression through a series of expansions of federal power and admirable end-runs around “outworn” Constitutional obstructions.
Still, she is replacing Justice Stevens, and we can console ourselves that it seems impossible that Obama could appoint anyone inclined to vote worse.