United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan spoke to a crowd of University of Wisconsin law students Friday afternoon, recounting her career in law and experience on the Court.
Margaret Raymond, Dean of the UW Law School, engaged in a question-and-answer discussion with Kagan throughout the entirety of the program.
Kagan and Raymond have been close friends for over four decades, having went to the same high school in New York City and worked in similar circles in the legal profession.
“She has my tremendous admiration for many reasons, but two stand out,” Raymond said in remarks about Kagan. “The first is the rich diversity of the work she has done and the second is her steadfast determination, commitment, and focus.”
Kagan was inspired by her father’s career in law, centered around problem-solving and helping other people, to pursue her own career in law.
But, her lengthy career in law didn’t begin that way. Kagan said she entered law school for “all the wrong reasons.”
Kagan explained she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life, and thought law school would be a good choice amid few other options.
Regardless, Kagan knew she was on the right career path and was drawn to the law due to its ability to improve the world and better people’s lives.
It wasn’t just her father who influenced her career, Kagan said. Kagan’s mother, who she described as “formidable,” played an extremely influential role in her formation as a person and as a lawyer.
“She demanded things, but she taught you to demand things of yourself,” Kagan said. “I’m awfully glad her voice is still in my head.”
Kagan accredits the guidance by many people throughout her career in both the public and private sectors as reasons for her success.
That advice, Kagan said, helped guide her in her experience as a justice on the highest court in the country. Kagan is the only justice currently serving on the court who had never served as a judge before being appointed, and said that her first year on the Court was an active and continuous learning experience.
“The best thing you can do is put yourself in a position where people can give you great advice, because a lot of them will want you to succeed,” Kagan said to the UW law students. “Make yourself a little bit vulnerable and ask questions.”
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When asked about her personal views on what Raymond described as the “polarization of today’s political climate,” Kagan said she believes the Supreme Court is doing better than some institutions. Kagan did not specify which institutions to which she was referring.
Kagan said it is not the judiciary’s job to “model civil discourse,” but rather to decide cases. Kagan still expressed her belief in the judiciary to both decide cases and to serve as a model for civil and political discourse for the country.
The court was most successful in its efforts to compromise and find common ground during the nearly one-and-a-half year period in which there were only eight justices on the Supreme Court, Kagan said.
That period, which began in February 2016 after the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and ended in April 2017 with the ascension of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, was marked by more frequent instances of compromise among the justices, Kagan said.
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“I think that is the silver lining of the two years with an eight person court, and I’m actually hopeful that the effects of it will continue now that we have a nine person court,” Kagan said about compromise among Supreme Court justices.
Currently on her seventh year on the court, Kagan, only 57, is expected to serve the Court for several more decades.
Supreme Court Justices rarely leave the Court for any other position, so Kagan will presumably be in this job for the remainder of her life. When asked if she has any apprehension about staying in the same job for the remaining years in her career, Kagan asserted her belief that there was no job she’d rather have.
“This is the world’s most interesting job for a lawyer,” Kagan said.