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May 10, 2010 11:29 AM by Bea Karnes, News First 5

Obama picks Elena Kagan for Supreme Court

President Barack Obama on Monday nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, declaring she would demonstrate the same independence, integrity and passion for the law exhibited by retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

"Elena is widely regarded as one of the nation's foremost legal minds," said Obama. "She's a trail-blazing leader."

The president also praised Kagan's temperament and her practice of "understanding before disagreeing."

Kagan called the Supreme Court an "extraordinary institution," one that advances "the tenets of our Constitution." She called her nomination "the honor of a lifetime."

Her selection, reported late Sunday by NBC News, positions the court to have three female justices for the first time in its history.

Kagan, 50, is known as sharp and politically savvy and has enjoyed a blazing legal career. She was the first female dean of Harvard Law School and the first woman to serve as the top Supreme Court lawyer for any administration.

Kagan would be the youngest justice on the court, which would give her the opportunity to extend Obama's legacy for a generation. She would also bring some fresh blood to the court's liberal wing in replacing the 90-year-old Stevens.

Democrats went 15 years without a Supreme Court appointment until Obama chose federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor last year to succeed retiring Justice David Souter.

When George W. Bush was in the White House, there was a conservative shift in the court's composition with the addition of Samuel Alito to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate whose vote often made the difference in ideologically charged cases. Kagan must win Senate confirmation, and she is expected to in the Democrat-led chamber. However, Republicans are likely to grill Kagan over her experience, her thin record of legal writings and her objections to the military's policy about gays.

Supreme Court confirmation hearings are often politically charged events, and it could be especially heated coming just months before November congressional elections.

To stop her from becoming the nation's 112th justice, Democrats would have to abandon Obama and his second high court pick or almost all of the GOP senators would have to agree to filibuster the nomination - more than a year after seven of them voted for Kagan to become the solicitor general. It is unlikely that Republicans will try to block her, said Manuel Miranda, chairman of the conservative Third Branch Conference.

A source close to the selection process said a central element in Obama's choice was Kagan's reputation for bringing together people of competing views and earning their respect.

Aides involved in the selection process tell NBC News that the president called Kagan at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday to tell her that she had been selected as the nominee.

Kagan came to the fore as a candidate who had worked closely with all three branches of government, a legal mind with both a sense of modesty and sense of humor. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss factors that led to Kagan's impending nomination.

Kagan has clerked for Thurgood Marshall, worked for Bill Clinton and earned a stellar reputation as a student, teacher and manager of the elite academic world. Her standing has risen in Obama's eyes as his government's lawyer before the high court over the last year.

She is known for having won over liberal and conservative faculty at the difficult-to-unite Harvard Law School, where she served as dean for nearly six years.

 

As solicitor general, Kagan represents the U.S. government and defends acts of Congress before the Supreme Court and decides when to appeal lower court rulings.

Despite her background in law, 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.

All of the three other finalists she beat out for the job are federal appeals court judges, and all nine of the current justices served on the federal bench before being elevated.

The White House is expected to frame Kagan's lack of service as a judge in upbeat terms, underscoring that there are many qualified routes to the top of the judiciary.

Supreme Court justices wield enormous power over the daily life of Americans. Any one of them can cast the deciding vote on matters of life and death, individual freedoms and government power. Presidents serve four-year terms; justices have tenure for life.

If Kagan is confirmed, it would be the first time that the nine-member Supreme Court would have three women on the bench. She would be just the fourth woman to serve on the court, following current Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor and retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

She would be the third Jewish justice along with six Catholics. With Stevens' retirement, the court will have no Protestants, the most prevalent denomination in the U.S.

Kagan, who is unmarried, was born in New York City. She holds a bachelor's degree from Princeton, a master's degree from Oxford and a law degree from Harvard.

Kagan and Obama both taught at the University of Chicago Law School in the early 1990s.

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