By Rebecca Henely
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan told an audience of about 150 people at St. John’s University Monday that when it comes to her and her colleagues, there are some fundamental differences.
“Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor, you know, is a Yankees fan,” said Kagan, who unlike her Bronx-born fellow judge roots for the New York Mets.
Kagan, an Upper West Side native who was nominated to America’s highest court by President Barack Obama in 2010, gave a chatty talk interspersed with jokes in the moot courtroom of the university, at 80-00 Utopia Pkwy. in Fresh Meadows. She answered questions from moderator Michael Simons, dean of the law school, and audience members both about her time on the court and her previous portfolios as dean of Harvard Law School and solicitor general of the United States.
The daughter of a lawyer, Kagan said she went to law school for want of anything better to do, but when she got there, she loved it immediately. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1986, she has held multiple jobs in the fields of law and legal education. She said in many of her professional positions, especially as dean of Harvard Law, she had to develop new skill sets on the job.
“One fun thing about a job is how much learning you can do,” Kagan said.
Her most recent job before becoming a Supreme Court justice was as the first female solicitor general, which represents the federal government in cases before the Supreme Court. Through the advice of many superlative lawyers working in the office, she learned about the great preparation needed to present cases to the court. She said the justices expect questions to be answered within two minutes and that many of these questions follow within quick succession.
“Most of the best oral advocates are not surprised by anything,” Kagan said.
Now that she is on the other side of the bench, Kagan said she makes an effort to ask questions about what she does not understand about the lawyer’s argument and any potential holes. She said those who appear before the Supreme Court should welcome the opportunity to address those issues.
“I’m giving the lawyer another opportunity to persuade me,” she said. “Really good lawyers have to show that they have answers to those hard questions.”
When asked about the divisions among the Supreme Court, Kagan said that while there are some disagreements, the extent to which the court is split has been over-simplified. She said the court sees about 70 cases a year, and while many of the decisions are unanimous, the 10 to 15 that are the most contentious get the most press attention.
“Some of those cases are the most important that the court has to hear,” she conceded.
Nevertheless, Kagan said the court in essence is collegial. They meet for lunch multiple times a month to talk about anything that is not related to their cases, including children, grandchildren and baseball.
“We actually all like each other an enormous amount and get along with each other extremely well,” Kagan said.
As a parting gift, moderator Simons gave her a Mets jersey and a baseball signed with a personalized message by Ray Knight, the most valuable player when the Mets won the World Series in 1986.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.