A Justice With Chutzpah

By Gabe Pressman
|  Thursday, Aug 5, 2010  |  Updated 7:31 PM EDT
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In Photos: Solicitor General Elena Kagan

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Elena Kagan

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It’s a great moment for Elena Kagan. It's a great moment for New York.

With the confirmation of Ms. Kagan, there are now three New York women on the high court: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan.

Back in 1980, when Liz Holtzman was running for U.S. Senate against Alphonse D’Amato, Kagan worked for Holtzman as a campaign volunteer. She impressed the campaign workers with her enthusiasm, her zeal, her seemingly limitless energy.

When Holtzman lost, Kagan was broken-hearted -- she once recalled: “I cried.”

I spoke to Liz Holtzman. She remembers that in those campaign days, “Elena was a skinny kid with long hair and big glasses.”

Kagan, a student at Princeton, was a reporter and writer for the Daily Princetonian. “When I grew up on Manhattan’s West Side,” she wrote then, “nobody ever admitted  to voting Republican.”

And she described the “real Democrats… committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of  an affirmative and compassionate government” that inhabit New York. If she still adheres to this liberal ideology, she has certainly not admitted it in recent years.

Holtzman told me: “I’m very proud of Elena. She is a brilliant woman who cares about the world around her. It’s good to have another woman on the court and it’s good to see another New Yorker as an associate justice. She has a warm personality and people will like her.”

One of Kagan’s favorite books is: ”Pride and Prejudice.” She’s read it several times. Walter Scott said of the author, Jane Austen, “that  young lady had a talent for describing the involvement and feelings of ordinary life which is to me  the most wonderful I ever met with.”

When Kagan was being questioned before her confirmation as U.S. Solicitor General last year, she said one of the things she hoped to bring to the job was “a kind of wisdom and judgment, a kind of understanding of how to separate the truly important from the spurious. I like to think that one of the good things about me is that I know what I don’t know and that I figure out how to learn it when I need to learn it.”

She showed leadership skills early, as the Times notes. She was elected president of the student government at the elite Hunter College High School and in the yearbook, she was pictured wearing a judge’s robe,  holding a gavel. Underneath was a quotation from Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: “Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts.”

As for the qualities she admires in human beings, back when she at the Princetonian, she wrote a story abut the new coordinator of the Women’s Center, Lila Karp. She told of Karp’s fight for better facilities for the center, praising her for “chutzpah” and “aggressiveness.”

Kagan becomes the fourth female justice in the U.S. Supreme Court’s history. I informed New York’s former chief judge, Judith Kaye, that Kagan had been confirmed, to which she replied,  “I’m so happy to hear that. I think she will be an outstanding addition to the court and a credit to New York.”

New York’s influence on the Supreme Court goes back to John Jay, whom Washington appointed as the first Chief Justice. On the bench, Jay pushed for state’s rights. Later, Washington sent him to Europe to negotiate a peace treaty with Britain and, when Jay came back, he discovered that he had just been elected Governor of New York.

Kagan, who’s unmarried, has been a devotee of softball, basketball and poker. If she exhibits the traits she admires, she might go down in history as the justice with “chutzpah.” A good New York trait that could be a credit to the court -- if she wields it carefully and constructively for the greater good.

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