Justice Kagan Reflects on Court, Career Journey in 2019 Stein Lecture

Before being appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan had always wondered what happened during the highest court’s secret deliberations, when doors are closed and others are barred from eavesdropping.

Now she knows.

For nearly a decade, Kagan has been on the inside, one of only nine people who serve as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, deciding the fate of landmark, and sometimes more mundane, cases.

“The whole thing is a pretty good gig,” Kagan said. “It’s hard not to love the job.”

Kagan was the featured speaker at the 2019 Stein Lecture at Northrop Memorial Auditorium (video now available). A crowd of about 2,700 was on hand at the sold-out 75-minute event to hear an engaging conversation between Kagan and Robert Stein ’61, Everett Fraser Professor of Law. The tone of the talk ranged from poignant to humorous.

Appointed by President Barack Obama, Kagan previous jobs have included U.S. Supreme Court clerk, law professor, law school dean, and Solicitor General of the United States.

Before her confirmation hearing in 2010, Kagan made informal visits to U.S. Senate offices. Many Second Amendment supporters from rural states asked if she’d ever been hunting. Kagan, a native New Yorker, hadn’t, but pledged to give it a try. After joining the bench, she began joining Justice Antonin Scalia on hunting trips to Virginia, Wyoming and Mississippi.

She enjoyed the trips and forging a connection to Scalia, who died in 2016. “I thought of him as a great friend,” she said.

Like Scalia, Kagan has issued some scathing dissents, including her minority opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause, a partisan gerrymandering case upholding the rights of state legislatures to draw political maps in favor of ruling parties.

“Of all times to abandon the Court’s duty to declare the law, this was not the one,” she wrote. “The practices challenged in these cases imperil our system of government.”

It was one of three dissenting opinions that she’s read from the bench. “It’s not common, but it is done,” she said. “It’s a symbolic action.”

The words in those dissents are designed to be convincing. “We believe in what we do,” she said. “You should write the most persuasive argument you can about why the majority opinion is wrong.”

Professor Stein pointed out that Kagan’s writing can also be very witty. He cited as an example Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, a patent law dispute involving the Web Blaster, a Spider Man-themed toy. In writing the majority opinion, the justice referred to the “web of precedents” in the case and stated “with great power—there must also come great responsibility,” a pop culture superhero reference.

Kagan also reflected on her early legal career clerking for Judge Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. She called Marshall, the civil rights litigator who served on the court from 1967-91, an iconic figure and talented storyteller.

“He was the greatest lawyer of the 20th century,” she said.

The Stein Lecture series features talks by prominent judges, lawyers, and government officials on a topic of national or international interest. Previous Stein Lectures have featured: Vice President Walter F. Mondale ’56, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

By Todd Melby, a Minneapolis-based writer and radio producer.

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Robert Stein ’61

Professor Emeritus
Distinguished Global Professor