Today, President Barack Obama ’91 announced that he will nominate former Harvard Law School Dean and current Solicitor General Elena Kagan ’86 to the seat vacated by retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the United States Supreme Court.
“This is a day on which the Harvard Law School community is immensely proud. President Obama—himself a son of Harvard Law School—has nominated to the highest court in the land a leader of tremendous vision who has been supremely dedicated to justice and the rule of law throughout a distinguished career marked by the passionate pursuit of excellence,” said HLS Dean Martha Minow. “Building on her days here as a superb student and later a brilliant teacher and an important scholar, Elena Kagan was an astonishingly effective dean who led the school in putting students first, renovating the curriculum, and expanding the faculty into the best and most wide-ranging to be found at any law school. She bridged past political divides over hiring, renewed the physical spaces of the campus, moved the library into the digital age, and created a climate of mutual respect across a diverse community. Her decency, her skill at making almost anything better, her intellectual and interpersonal talents, and her integrity make this an outstanding nomination.”
“Her devotion to public service is exemplified not only by her career but also by her creation of the faculty post of Dean’s Special Advisor for public service and her sponsorship of the first Celebration of Public Service, an enormously successful event that brought together multiple generations of alumni with wide-ranging careers in public service. She has always been an exceptionally careful listener, fairly and respectfully considering every argument and all points of view. Her students and her colleagues have always come away from their encounters with her knowing that she listened to them with the utmost consideration, and that she did not stop probing until she understood exactly what they needed her to understand. She will be a first rate Justice,” said Minow.
In an East Room ceremony, Obama praised Kagan’s “openness to a broad array of viewpoints” and her “fair mindedness.” “Her passion for the law is anything but academic,” he said. “She believes, as I do, that exposure to a wide array of perspectives is the foundation not just for a sound legal education but a successful life in the law,” said Obama, who was also joined by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. Noting that neither of Kagan’s parents “lived to see this day,” Obama said, “I think her mother would relish this moment. I think she would relish, as I do, the prospect of three women taking their seat on the nation’s highest court for the first time in history, a court that would be more inclusive, more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before.”
Kagan said she was “honored and humbled” by the nomination, calling it “the honor of a lifetime.”
“The Court is an extraordinary institution in the work it does and in the work it can do for the American people, by advancing the tenets of our Constitution, by upholding the rule of law, and by enabling all Americans, regardless of their background or their beliefs, to get a fair hearing and an equal chance at justice,” said Kagan. “Justice Stevens has played a particularly distinguished and exemplary role. It is therefore a special honor to be nominated to fill his seat.” Read transcript of remarks by the president and Kagan at the nomination.
If her nomination is confirmed by the Senate, Kagan will join five other Harvard Law School alumni on the high court: Chief Justice John G. Roberts ’79, Justice Anthony Kennedy ’61, Stephen Breyer ’64, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who attended HLS from 1956 to 1958 and ultimately received her degree from Columbia Law School), and Antonin Scalia ’60. Throughout history, numerous Harvard Law School graduates and faculty members have served on the high court, including Joseph Story, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter, William Brennan, Harry Blackmun, and others.
Kagan is currently the Solicitor General of the United States. Nominated to the position on January 5, 2009, she was confirmed by the Senate on March 19, 2009. In her capacity as Solicitor General, Kagan has argued six cases before the Supreme Court to date.
From 1995 to 1999, Kagan served in the White House, first as associate counsel to the president (1995-96) and then as deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy, and deputy director of the Domestic Policy Council (1997-99). In those positions she played a key role in the executive branch’s formulation, advocacy, and implementation of law and policy in areas ranging from education to crime to public health.
Kagan first came to Harvard Law School as a visiting professor in 1999 and became professor of law in 2001. She has taught administrative law, constitutional law, civil procedure, and seminars on issues involving the separation of powers. She was appointed dean of the law school in 2003 and was named the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law.
Kagan graduated from Princeton University in 1981. She earned a master’s in philosophy from Oxford and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1986. Kagan clerked for Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit and then for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She later practiced law as an associate at Williams & Connolly, and taught law on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School before coming to Harvard.
A five-year retrospective
Under the five-year deanship of Elena Kagan ’86, Harvard Law School experienced remarkable growth and change, including a headline-making reform of the curriculum, an impressive expansion of the faculty, a major initiative to support public service, and the design of a new building complex now under construction.