September 24, 2013
During a visit to Harvard Law School in early September, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan '86 reflected on her career and her current role on the Court in a conversation with Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow. The discussion took place as part of orientation exercises for incoming J.D and graduate students at Harvard Law School on Sept. 3.
During the event, Kagan fielded questions from the dean on topics ranging from her experience arguing before the Court as solicitor general, to the social aspects of serving on the Supreme Court, including hunting with Justice Scalia, to Supreme Court cases she thinks should get more public attention.
Prior to her Court appointment, Kagan served as solicitor general of the United States from 2009 to 2010. When asked about her time as solicitor general, Kagan detailed the responsibilities of the Office and defined her role as supervising and conducting the appellate litigation of the United States. She described the work as an amazing job in the best lawyer’s office that exists any place in this country. “You feel as if you’re doing the best legal job in America,” she said.
Kagan, who had never argued before the Court prior to her solicitor general appointment, described her preparation for the job and the excitement of arguing her first Court case. She told the audience, which was mostly comprised of students beginning their first year at Harvard Law School, that the experience of arguing before the Court was in many ways similar to that of a law student getting called on in class. “You’ve answered one question okay and then the professor comes back with another and another,” said Kagan. “You just have to take it in stride.”
During the almost hour-long conversation, Kagan described her preparation for cases, including her process for digesting legal briefs, working with law clerks, interacting with fellow justices and writing opinions.
Minow noted that several cases each term garner tremendous national and international attention, including last term’s same-sex marriage decisions. When asked which cases she believes deserve more public attention, Kagan replied that there are important cases every term in which big matters are being decided and which may be leading to divided decisions. “I wrote a couple of dissenting opinions this term on cases involving class litigation, class actions,” said Kagan. “I think the Court is doing some big things regarding how civil litigation is conducted in America and things which really affect the ability of people without a lot of money to bring lawsuits to vindicate their legal rights, that are changing our litigation system in ways that I think are unfortunate and are not supported by the law that’s out there. I wish that that got more attention.”
Sponsored by the Dean of Students Office, The Harvard Federalist Society and the HLS American Constitution Society, the event took place in the Wasserstein Hall, Caspersen Student Center, Clinical Wing, a building conceived during Kagan’s deanship (2003-2009) to serve as a hub for student activity and organizations.
In fall 2012 and 2013, Kagan led a reading group on the Court at HLS, as the Archibald Cox Visiting Professor of Law.
Earlier during orientation week, Dean Minow delivered a welcome speech to the incoming class at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Minow discussed the many accomplishments of the class, noting that the 562 new J.D. students hail from 12 countries and 42 U.S. states. This year’s class includes 22 Teach for America Alumni, 17 AmeriCorps and nine PeaceCorps alumni, as well as several Rhodes and Fulbright scholars. The 181 LL.M. and 14 S.J.D. students in this year’s class, the majority of whom are women, represent 67 jurisdictions.
As part of her welcome address, Minow also discussed her current topic of research, the question of whether law should include the possibility of forgiveness. “Forgiving the wrongdoer contradicts the demand for accountability and enforcement of norms that law represents,” she said. “But forgiving the wrongdoer may repair social relationships, relieve victims of weighty resentment, or permit a fresh start.” She encouraged students to email her with their feedback.