Who Is Elena Kagan?
Elena Kagan is a U.S. Supreme Court Justice and is only the fourth woman to hold the position. Inspired by her father's work at the Manhattan law firm Kagan & Lubic, she took an interest in law at an early age. In 2009, Kagan became the first woman to serve as solicitor general of the United States and the following year she was confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Early Life and Education
Born April 28, 1960, in New York City to parents Gloria and Robert, Elena Kagan grew up as the second of three children in a middle-class Jewish family living on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Kagan's mother was an educator, teaching students at Hunter College Elementary School. Her father was a longtime partner at the Manhattan law firm Kagan & Lubic, working primarily with tenant associations.
Kagan attended Hunter College High School, an all-girls school that she later cited as a formative experience in her life. "It was a very cool thing to be a smart girl, as opposed to some other, different kind," she says. "And I think that made a great deal of difference to me growing up and in my life afterward." Kagan graduated from the institution in 1977 and headed to Princeton University, where she studied history, all the while with law school as her ultimate goal.
In 1981, Kagan graduated summa cum laude from Princeton with a bachelor's degree. She also earned the Daniel M. Sachs Graduating Fellow scholarship from her alma mater, which allowed her to attend Worcester College in Oxford, England. In 1983, she earned a master's degree in philosophy at Worcester before moving on immediately to Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, she served as the supervising editor of the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude in 1986.
After school, Kagan landed a job clerking for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The next year, she began another clerking job, this time for Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court. During this time, she also worked for Michael Dukakis' 1988 presidential campaign, but after Dukakis lost his bid, Kagan headed to the private sector to work as an associate at the Washington D.C. law firm Williams & Connolly.
After three years at Williams & Connolly, Kagan returned to academia—this time as a professor. In 1991, she began teaching at the University of Chicago Law School, and by 1995, she was a tenured professor of law. Kagan left the school that same year, however, to work as associate counsel for President Bill Clinton. During her four years at the White House, Kagan was promoted several times: first to the position of Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, and then to the role of Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council.
Before Clinton left office, he nominated Kagan to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals D.C. Circuit. However, her nomination languished with the Senate Judiciary Committee and in 1999, Kagan returned to higher education. Starting as a visiting professor at Harvard Law, Kagan quickly climbed the ladder from professor in 2001 to dean in 2003. During her five years as the dean of Harvard Law, Kagan made big changes at the institution, including faculty expansion, curriculum changes and the development of new campus facilities.
First Female Solicitor General
After fellow Harvard alumnus Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, he selected Kagan for the role of solicitor general. In January 2009, Kagan received her endorsement from the previous solicitors general and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on March 19, 2009. With her confirmation, she became the first woman to serve as solicitor general of the United States.
Supreme Court Justice
Just one year after her confirmation as solicitor general, President Obama nominated Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens on the Supreme Court bench after his retirement. On August 5, 2010, she was confirmed by Senate with a vote of 63–37, making her the fourth woman to sit on the high court. At 50 years old, she became the youngest member of the current court and the only justice on the bench who had no previous judicial experience. In addition, her approval put three female justices—Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor—on the country's highest court for the first time in U.S. history.
In 2015, Kagan continued to make history when she sided with the majority in two landmark Supreme Court rulings. On June 25, she was one of the six justices to uphold a critical component of the 2010 Affordable Care Act—often referred to as Obamacare—in King v. Burwell. The decision allows the federal government to continue providing subsidies to Americans who purchase health care through "exchanges," regardless of whether they are state or federally operated. Kagan is considered to have been instrumental in the ruling, having introduced logic in favor of the law during oral arguments earlier in the case. The majority ruling, read by Chief Justice John Roberts, was a massive victory for President Obama and makes the Affordable Care Act difficult to undo. Conservative justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia were in dissent, with Scalia presenting a scathing dissenting opinion to the Court.
On June 26, the Supreme Court handed down its second historic decision in as many days, with Kagan again joining the majority (5–4) ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states. Although Kagan had made the statement during her 2009 confirmation hearings that "there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage," her comments during oral arguments suggested she had perhaps changed her opinion. She was joined in the majority by Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer, Sotomayor and Ginsburg, with Roberts reading the dissenting opinion this time.
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