Solicitor General To Be Nominated To Supreme Court

President Obama is set to nominate Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. If confirmed, the nation's top court could have three women justices for the first time.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama has nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. She appeared with the president and vice president at a ceremony in the White House's East Room this morning. NPR's Ari Shapiro was there, and he joins us now to discuss the nomination. Good morning.

ARI SHAPIRO: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So give us some background on Elena Kagan.

SHAPIRO: Well, she's currently the solicitor general of the United States. That means she's the government's chief advocate before the Supreme Court. She grew in New York. She's the daughter of a teacher and a lawyer. Her brothers, who were here today, are both public school teachers. Kagan went to Princeton for an undergraduate degree, then she attended Oxford, where she got a master's, Harvard for law school. She eventually taught at University of Chicago at the same time Barack Obama was a teacher at University of Chicago Law School. She went to Harvard Law and became dean there in 2003. And at this morning's ceremony, she talked about why she loves teaching and the law. Here's what she said.

Ms. ELENA KAGAN (Solicitor General; Supreme Court Nominee): Through most of my professional life, I've had the simple joy of teaching, of trying to communicate to students why I so love the law - not just because it's challenging and endlessly interesting, although it certainly is that, because law matters, because it keeps us safe, because it protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms, and because it is the foundation of our democracy.

SHAPIRO: And Elena Kagan said she had the honor of working for two presidents: President Clinton and President Obama. Unlike most recent Supreme Court nominees, she has not ever been a judge, which differentiates her from Sonia Sotomayor, President Obama's most recent nominee, and President Bush's two nominees, as well.

MONTAGNE: What has the White House said about how it plans to promote her as a nominee?

SHAPIRO: Well, President Obama sort of hit two themes repeatedly in his comments this morning. The first was Kagan's ability to understand how the law affects real people. And that's a theme that President Obama has emphasized over the last year and a half, as he talks about what he looks for in a judge. The second theme was her ability to reach out across the aisle and reach out to conservatives. Here's some of what the president said.

President BARACK OBAMA: Elena's respected and admired, not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints, her habit - to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens - of understanding before disagreeing.

SHAPIRO: The president talked about how Kagan made efforts to diversify the Harvard Law School faculty during her time there. And the White House hopes that those efforts to reach across the aisle can help bring Republican senators onboard to support her, and also, that if confirmed, those skills can help Kagan persuade other justices to join what is typically a liberal minority -specifically Justice Anthony Kennedy, who, at times, is the fifth swing vote.

MONTAGNE: So the Senate has to confirm her. What has been - I'd like to know the immediate reaction generally, if you have that - but mostly from the Senate.

SHAPIRO: Well, Republican senators are holding their fire for the time being. They're not starting out with harsh attacks. They are saying they need to learn more about her record. They need to find out where she stands on important issues. You know, one big difference Kagan and Justice Sotomayor - President Obama's last nominee - is that over her years as a judge, Sotomayor accumulated a huge paper trail.

Kagan has very little of a paper trail, which could be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on how you look at it. On the one hand, it makes it less likely that there will be some smoking gun in some brief or opinion that she wrote, because there just aren't that many of them. On the other hand, it allows Republicans to raise the criticism that we don't know where she stands on important issues, and therefore, they can say they're more reluctant to confirm her.

You know, after the ceremony this morning, I pulled aside John Podesta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff, and asked whether he thought Kagan would get more Republican votes or fewer than Sotomayor, who got nine Republican votes. Podesta said to me, well, you know, in a normal world, she would get a unanimous vote, but as politicized as the Senate is right now, I'm not making any predictions.

MONTAGNE: Ari, thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: You're welcome.

MONTAGNE: NPR's White House correspondent, Ari Shapiro.

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