Senate Panel Opens Kagan Confirmation Hearings

The Senate Judiciary Committee opened confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan on Monday.

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Today was the first day of hearings to confirm Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. Each senator spent 10 minutes delivering an opening statement. And they used those remarks to stake out positions not only on the nominee, but also on the Supreme Court as an institution.

NPR's Ari Shapiro has this roundup of the day's events.

ARI SHAPIRO: Elena Kagan stopped by the Oval Office on her way to Capitol Hill this morning. President Obama wished her good luck. Then she went to the hearing room and sat for hours while senators made their opening statements.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Good afternoon, welcome.

SHAPIRO: As Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont opened the hearing, he covered Kagan's biography: Princeton, Oxford, Harvard, work in Congress and the White House, then dean of Harvard Law School and now, solicitor general of the United States, representing the Obama administration before the Supreme Court.

But Leahy talked as much about the country's history as he did the nominees.

Sen. LEAHY: The genius of our founders was to establish a constitution firm enough to enshrine freedom and the rule of law as guiding principles, yet flexible enough to sustain a young nation that was destined to grow into the greatest, the richest, most powerful nation on earth.

SHAPIRO: Leahy said the country rejected conservative judicial activism 75 years ago. And he warned that it's making a comeback. He criticized recent, sweeping 5-4 rulings such as the Citizens United decision that lifted restrictions on corporate campaign spending, and today's ruling that dramatically expanded gun ownership rights.

Sen. LEAHY: In my view, a Supreme Court justice needs to exercise judgment, should appreciate the proper role of the courts in a democracy, should consider the consequences of decisions on the fundamental purposes of law and the lives of Americans.

SHAPIRO: This was a theme of the day. Democrats criticized the justices who sit across the street as much as they praised the nominee who sat across the room. Republicans, such as ranking member Jeff Sessions of Alabama, also criticized judicial activism, but Sessions defined the word very differently.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Importantly, throughout her career, Ms. Kagan has associated herself with well-known activist judges who have used their power to redefine the meaning of words of our Constitution and laws in ways that not surprisingly, have the result of advancing that judge's preferred social policies.

SHAPIRO: He criticized Kagan's lack of judicial experience.

Sen. SESSIONS: Ms. Kagan has less real legal experience of any nominee in at least 50 years, and it's not just that the nominee has not been a judge. She has barely practiced law, and not with the intensity and duration from which I think real legal understanding occurs.

SHAPIRO: If these hearings turn out to be more of a debate over the future of the Supreme Court than a debate over Kagan specifically, that's partly because the Supreme Court has given senators a lot of fodder in the last year. But it's also because Kagan has not provided much red meat.

Here's how California Democrat Dianne Feinstein described it.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Over the past few weeks, there's been a drift net out, trying to find some disqualifying fact or factor in your record. But today, I don't believe any such factor has been found. I believe that you are imminently confirmable.

SHAPIRO: Republicans, such as Utah's Orrin Hatch, generally agreed.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): Something tells me this is likely to be your last confirmation hearing.

SHAPIRO: Since President Obama chose Kagan for the high court last month, the nomination has received far less attention than other news stories, such as the BP oil spill or Afghanistan. But if confirmed, Kagan could serve on the Supreme for decades. And as Senator Hatch acknowledged, her impact could be one of President Obama's longest legacies.

Sen. HATCH: This is a critical decision. And it is about more than just one person. Our decision will affect liberty itself.

SHAPIRO: At the end of the day, Kagan finally spoke, hitting the same themes every Supreme Court nominee has emphasized for the last decade.

Ms. ELENA KAGAN (Solicitor General, Supreme Court Nominee): I will listen hard to every party before the court and to each of my colleagues. I will work hard. And I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with law.

SHAPIRO: Fifteen years ago, Kagan called confirmation hearings a vapid and hollow charade. Many senators quoted that law review article today. And they expressed a hope that these hearings, which continue tomorrow, will be different.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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