Elena Kagan

Elena Kagan

Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan with President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden (photo: wikimedia.org)

Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Elena Kagan, a graduate of Princeton University’s Class of ʼ81, spoke informally yesterday with University President Christopher L. Eisgruber. Unlike the other Ivy schools, Princeton doesn’t have a school of law (or medicine), and Kagan obtained her legal training at Harvard Law, where she was later the school’s first female dean. Nevertheless, she told the crowd filling Richardson Auditorium that “whatever I learned about writing, I learned here.”

Eisgruber, also a lawyer (University of Chicago), asked Kagan about rumors she goes hunting with Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. It dates back, she says, to her pre-confirmation interviews with Senators in 2010. Since they couldn’t ask her directly what she believes about specific cases and laws, they resorted to indirect stratagems to feel her out. A western Senator asked, “Do you hunt?” She explained she was from New York City. “Do you know anyone who does hunt?” Not that, either. But she promised that, if confirmed, she’d have “Nino” take her. In 82 interviews, “It was the only promise I made,” she said.

In her judicial decision-making, she said she often returns to the intent of the framers, but that can lead to untenable results in the modern world. She also looks at judicial history over time, “thinking hard” about the precedents for a case. The part of the work she enjoys most is when there is an opportunity for influencing opinion, and the Justices are arrayed around their conference table, trying to sway one another by making strong arguments.

As to the 5-4 split decisions for which the current Court is known, she said 60% of the Court’s decisions are unanimous. Most of the disagreements have to do with how people read some of the law’s and Constitution’s most abstract provisions, and they come about, not because the Court has blind spots in certain areas—gender politics being suggested as one possibility by an audience questioner—but because there are strong arguments on both sides of a question that represent a real clash of values.

Eisgruber asked how she likes being an Associate Justice, and she said “Great gig!”