Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan embarks on her quest for Senate confirmation with a strong presumption of success, drawing praise from majority Democrats and nary the threat of an all-out election-year battle from Republicans.
GOP critics laid down a series of markers, though, making clear they will question the 50-year-old solicitor general about her lack
of judicial experience, her decision as dean of the Harvard Law School to ban military recruiters from campus, and her ability to rule objectively on cases involving the Obama administration.
Americans "do not want someone to be a rubber stamp for any administration,'' Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said
Monday, a few hours after President Barack Obama named Kagan as his choice for the high court. ``They instinctively know that a
lifetime position on the Supreme Court does not lend itself to on-the-job training.''
Kagan, if confirmed, will join Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor to form a New York City triumvirate on the court.
Kagan would take the place of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens and, on the face of it, would not be expected to alter the ideological balance of a court that often splits 5-4 on the most contentious cases.
Even so, Obama e-mailed a video to thousands of supporters in which he said the 90-year-old Stevens has helped justices "find
common ground on some of the most controversial and contentious issues the court has ever faced.'' He added Kagan could "ultimately provide that same kind of leadership,'' suggesting she had the legal acumen and personality necessary to knit together a
majority coalition of five justices, as Stevens has done.
The president did not identify any of the cases he was referring to. But Stevens has been on the majority side in recent years in
divided court decisions that ruled detainees at Guantanamo had a right to go to court to challenge their confinement, struck down
Bush-era military commissions, and banned the death penalty for offenders younger than 18.
Other close cases where Stevens either wrote the opinion or assigned it as the senior justice on the prevailing side cheered environmentalists and supporters of abortion rights. One directed the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas
emissions from cars and trucks. Another struck down a Nebraska state law that banned a type of late-term abortion.
Obama doesn't face the voters until 2012, but his decision to videotape a message to his supporters underscored the political
context inherent in Kagan's selection.
While the economy, terrorism and recent passage of health care legislation in Congress are likely to dominate the campaign, Kagan instantly became an issue in the race for the Democratic senatorial nomination in Pennsylvania.
There, Rep. Joe Sestak challenged Sen. Arlen Specter to explain why he had opposed Kagan's appointment as solicitor general last
year, and added the incumbent ``may backtrack from his earlier vote'' to try to gain support.
Specter said later the two jobs are "distinctly different'' from one another, and noted Kagan's "exemplary credentials.''
Specter was a Republican when Kagan last came before the Senate, and in public remarks at the time, said he opposed her appointment because she had ducked numerous questions.
It wasn't the only criticism Kagan drew from Republicans when she was seeking approval to become the solicitor general -- essentially the president's lawyer before the Supreme Court.
Her decision to bar military recruiters on campus drew criticism from Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who said at the time of her
earlier appointment that she had "placed her own opposition to military policies above the need of our military men and women to
receive good legal advice, even from Harvard lawyers.''
Seven Republicans voted to confirm Kagan, who was approved as solicitor general on a 61-31 vote. At least two of them, Sens. Jon
Kyl of Arizona and Orrin Hatch of Utah, emphasized Monday that they would approach her appointment to a lifetime job differently than a political post.
Obama said he hopes the Senate will confirm Kagan in time for her to join the court before the opening of the next term in October.
To accomplish that, senators would need to vote before leaving the Capitol for their Labor Day vacation, a timetable that Sessions, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee, said "should be doable.''
Democrats were already looking ahead to her approval.
"When Solicitor General Kagan is confirmed, the Supreme Court will have three sitting female justices for the first time,'' said
Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. He called that ``a historic occurrence that is long overdue.''
A New York Mets fan, Kagan will serve as a counterweight to Sotomayor's pro-Yankees sentiments. Obama joked in his nomination speech that Sotomayor has ordered a pinstriped robe for her prospective colleague.
Kagan, who grew up on the Upper West Side, attended Hunter, a publicly funded school affiliated with Hunter College that admits only the brightest students from New York City's five boroughs. Hunter was an all-girls school when Kagan went there but is now co-ed.
"We're very proud," said Principal Eileen Coppola. "It just adds to the school's sense of history."
She called Kagan "a wonderful role model for our students to look up to and see what it's possible for them to accomplish."
The students cheered when Obama noted that Kagan's mother was a teacher, as are her two brothers. Marc, the third sibling, teaches at the Bronx High School of Science.
Collins said Irving Kagan is a terrific teacher.
"He embodies a commitment to public service that definitely seems to be reflected in his sister," she said. "Every class is really interesting. He's always sort of jovial. He's fun-loving."
Notable Hunter alums include poet Audre Lorde, actress Cynthia Nixon and novelist Cynthia Ozick. And then there is Kagan, a former Harvard Law School dean and current U.S. solicitor general.
"Elena stood out as being very brilliant," said retired history teacher Susan Meeker. "Her personality was low-key with an even temperament, certainly self-confident and thoughtful."
Meeker said Hunter "really built a tremendous sense of self-image and future. These girls all knew they had a future." Today, teachers who work alongside Kagan's brother say Kagan's achievement will only serve to further inspire the hard-working students.
"They aim high," said teacher Gregory Boyle. "They're ambitious in the best way. They're thinking about how they can make a mark on the world in a positive way."