Obama Selects Elena Kagan as Nominee to Supreme Court

Jodi Jacobson

This morning, President Obama officially nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. Reaction by both progressives and conservatives has been mixed.

This morning, President Obama officially nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. 

By any objective measure, Kagan, age 50, is a woman of stellar professional credentials. She earned degrees from Princeton, Oxford and Harvard Law School. She clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, worked as a Senate staffer, and also worked in the White House under President Bill Clinton.  She was the first female dean of Harvard Law School and is currently serving as the first female Solicitor General in the Obama White House. She was nominated to the Court of Appeals by President Clinton but due to obstruction by Senate Republicans, her nomination never came to a vote.

In 2009, according to Politifact, when Obama tapped Kagan to be his first solicitor general, she was confirmed on a 61 to 31 vote. “She was supported by Democrats and a handful of Republicans. The GOP supporters included Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Susan Collins of Maine, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Orrin Hatch of Utah, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Richard Lugar of Indiana and Olympia Snowe of Maine.” In addition, according to the Washington Post, she “had the support of each of the last eight men who have held the title, Democrats and Republicans alike, starting with President Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, Charles Fried, who calls her “awesomely intelligent.””

The New York Times notes that “her inexperience as a judge makes her a rarity in modern times, but until the 1970s many Supreme Court justices came from outside the judiciary, including senators, governors, cabinet secretaries and even a former president.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog writes:

Kagan is uniformly regarded as extremely smart, having risen to two of the most prestigious positions in all of law:  dean of Harvard Law School and Solicitor General.

In government and academia, she has shown a special capacity to bring together people with deeply held, conflicting views.  On a closely divided Supreme Court, that is an especially important skill.

With her nomination now public, however, and the possiblity of a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, some conservatives who previously voted for her as Solicitor General now are vowing a “fresh look.”

According to Roll Call:

At least two Republicans who voted for Kagan’s confirmation last year — Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (Utah) — said Monday that they will not be bound by their previous support and called for a lengthy, deliberate confirmation process.

“As I made clear when I supported her confirmation as solicitor general, a temporary political appointment is far different than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court,” Kyl said. “Every Senator has a constitutional duty to scrutinize judicial nominees, and I will take great care in examining her record to ensure that she possess the qualities the American people expect in our Supreme Court justices. I expect Senate Democrats will allow ample time for the Senate to conduct this vetting process.”

Reaction to Kagan’s nomination even among progressives has been mixed. The choice of Kagan has been treated with some caution by women’s groups and outright skepticism or criticism by other progressives.

Little is known about Kagan’s positions on the right to choose abortion or broader reproductive and sexual health issues, and the reaction of women’s groups has been tempered by the lack of a track record. In a press statement, Terri O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW):

“While we are pleased to see the second woman in a row nominated to the court, gender alone is not enough. Justice Stevens was a clear champion of social justice, who will leave behind a proud liberal legacy. We are eager to learn that Elena Kagan, too, will stand for equality and fairness across the board. [H]aving never served as a judge herself, it is unclear where Kagan stands on most of NOW’s key issues.”

In a similar statement, Nancy Keenan of NARAL pro-choice America said:

“President Obama has selected a nominee with a sound record of legal accomplishment. We call on the Senate to give Solicitor General Kagan a fair hearing and look forward to learning more about her views on the right to privacy and the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. President Obama recently reiterated his strong support for constitutional principles that protect women’s rights. We will work to ensure Americans receive clear answers to questions regarding these principles as this nomination process moves forward.”

By contrast, a statement by the National Women’s Law Center was unequivocally supportive:

“We have known Elena Kagan for many years and have the greatest respect for her outstanding accomplishments, considerable legal skills, and fair-mindedness,” said co-president Marsha Greenberger.

Others point out that Kagan has a solid history as a dean and in other areas of her career.  As Dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan made many changes (e.g. updating the law school curriculum) and was highly popular among students.  She raised large sums of money for the school, and is noted as having healed rifts between liberal and conservative groups within the school.

She also famously barred military recruiters from a campus facility because she arguted that Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the ban on openly gay men and lesbians serving in the military violated the school’s anti-discrimination policy.  Goldstein details the history on this issue at SCOTUSblog.  This act has earned her praise from advocates of human rights/GLBT rights but criticism from conservatives.

But concerns about Kagan’s broader record also have been raised by numerous columnists and analysts.  Writing for Salon, for example, James Doty, a writer and lawyer, critiqued Kagan’s performance in the most recent cases argued by Kagan as Solicitor General.  In his critique, he questions whether, even assuming a progressive judicial bent, Kagan could be effective in persuading more conservative justices to agree with her.

Largely overlooked…is an issue that is ultimately more far-reaching: whether Kagan would be an effective liberal on the court — that is, whether she has the skills to win over Anthony Kennedy, who casts the decisive vote in nearly all of the court’s most closely divided cases, and whether she could match wits with Antonin Scalia and John Roberts, the court’s conservative fire-breathers.

Glenn Greenwald has argued against Kagan’s nomination for some weeks in part because he asserts the court with Kagan will become more, not less conservative.

The prospect that Stevens will be replaced by Elena Kagan has led to the growing perception that Barack Obama will actually take a Supreme Court dominated by Justices Scalia (Reagan), Thomas (Bush 41), Roberts (Bush 43), Alito (Bush 43) and Kennedy (Reagan) and move it further to the Right.  Joe Lieberman went on Fox News this weekend to celebrate the prospect that “President Obama may nominate someone in fact who makes the Court slightly less liberal,” while The Washington Post‘s Ruth Marcus predicted:  “The court that convenes on the first Monday in October is apt to be more conservative than the one we have now.”  Last Friday, I made the same argument:   that replacing Stevens with Kagan risks moving the Court to the Right, perhaps substantially to the Right (by “the Right,” I mean:  closer to the Bush/Cheney vision of Government and the Thomas/Scalia approach to executive power and law).

And others have criticized the lack of diversity evident in the faculty of Harvard Law School under Kagan despite the “unprecedented expansion” of staff made during her tenure. In a compelling piece on Salon, law professors Guy-Uriel Charles, Anupam Chander, Luis Fuentes-Rohwer, and Angela Onwuachi-Willig examine this record:

The first woman Dean of Harvard Law School had presided over an unprecedented expansion of the faculty — growing it by almost a half. She had hired 32 tenured and tenure-track academic faculty members (non-clinical, non-practice). But when we sat down to review the actual record, we were frankly shocked. Not only were there shockingly few people of color, there were very few women. Where were the people of color? Where were the women? Of these 32 tenured and tenure-track academic hires, only one was a minority. Of these 32, only seven were women. All this in the 21st Century.

Finally, concerns have been raised about the number of cases from which Kagan will have to recuse herself in the early part of her Supreme Court tenure due to her prior involvement as Solicitor General. Goldstein of ScotusBlog estimates that she would have to sit out on 13 to 15 matters. Others have argued it may well be significantly more than that.

The only thing that seems certain is that court analysts and advocates on both sides will be watching closely for signals as to Kagan’s positions on current and critical issues of the day, as so little is clearly evidence from her record.  

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?

Analysis Law and Policy

Indiana Court of Appeals Tosses Patel Feticide Conviction, Still Defers to Junk Science

Jessica Mason Pieklo

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled patients cannot be prosecuted for self-inducing an abortion under the feticide statute, but left open the possibility other criminal charges could apply.

The Indiana Court of Appeals on Friday vacated the feticide conviction of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman who faced 20 years in prison for what state attorneys argued was a self-induced abortion. The good news is the court decided Patel and others in the state could not be charged and convicted for feticide after experiencing failed pregnancies. The bad news is that the court still deferred to junk science at trial that claimed Patel’s fetus was on the cusp of viability and had taken a breath outside the womb, and largely upheld Patel’s conviction of felony neglect of a dependent. This leaves the door open for similar prosecutions in the state in the future.

As Rewire previously reported, “In July 2013 … Purvi Patel sought treatment at a hospital emergency room for heavy vaginal bleeding, telling doctors she’d had a miscarriage. That set off a chain of events, which eventually led to a jury convicting Patel of one count of feticide and one count of felony neglect of a dependent in February 2015.”

To charge Patel with feticide under Indiana’s law, the state at trial was required to prove she “knowingly or intentionally” terminated her pregnancy “with an intention other than to produce a live birth or to remove a dead fetus.”

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, attorneys for the State of Indiana failed to show the legislature had originally passed the feticide statute with the intention of criminally charging patients like Patel for terminating their own pregnancies. Patel’s case, the court said, marked an “abrupt departure” from the normal course of prosecutions under the statute.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“This is the first case that we are aware of in which the State has used the feticide statute to prosecute a pregnant woman (or anyone else) for performing an illegal abortion, as that term is commonly understood,” the decision reads. “[T]he wording of the statute as a whole indicate[s] that the legislature intended for any criminal liability to be imposed on medical personnel, not on women who perform their own abortions,” the court continued.

“[W]e conclude that the legislature never intended the feticide statute to apply to pregnant women in the first place,” it said.

This is an important holding, because Patel was not actually the first woman Indiana prosecutors tried to jail for a failed pregnancy outcome. In 2011, state prosecutors brought an attempted feticide charge against Bei Bei Shuai, a pregnant Chinese woman suffering from depression who tried to commit suicide. She survived, but the fetus did not.

Shuai was held in prison for a year until a plea agreement was reached in her case.

The Indiana Court of Appeals did not throw out Patel’s conviction entirely, though. Instead, it vacated Patel’s second charge of Class A felony conviction of neglect of a dependent, ruling Patel should have been charged and convicted of a lower Class D felony. The court remanded the case back to the trial court with instructions to enter judgment against Patel for conviction of a Class D felony neglect of a dependent, and to re-sentence Patel accordingly to that drop in classification.

A Class D felony conviction in Indiana carries with it a sentence of six months to three years.

To support Patel’s second charge of felony neglect at trial, prosecutors needed to show that Patel took abortifacients; that she delivered a viable fetus; that said viable fetus was, in fact, born alive; and that Patel abandoned the fetus. According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state got close, but not all the way, to meeting this burden.

According to the Indiana Court of Appeals, the state had presented enough evidence to establish “that the baby took at least one breath and that its heart was beating after delivery and continued to beat until all of its blood had drained out of its body.”

Therefore, the Court of Appeals concluded, it was reasonable for the jury to infer that Patel knowingly neglected the fetus after delivery by failing to provide medical care after its birth. The remaining question, according to the court, was what degree of a felony Patel should have been charged with and convicted of.

That is where the State of Indiana fell short on its neglect of a dependent conviction, the court said. Attorneys had failed to sufficiently show that any medical care Patel could have provided would have resulted in the fetus surviving after birth. Without that evidence, the Indiana Court of Appeals concluded, state attorneys could not support a Class A conviction. The evidence they presented, though, could support a Class D felony conviction, the court said.

In other words, the Indiana Court of Appeals told prosecutors in the state, make sure your medical experts offer more specific testimony next time you bring a charge like the one at issue in Patel’s case.

The decision is a mixed win for reproductive rights and justice advocates. The ruling from the court that the feticide statute cannot be used to prosecute patients for terminating their own pregnancy is an important victory, especially in a state that has sought not just to curb access to abortion, but to eradicate family planning and reproductive health services almost entirely. Friday’s decision made it clear to prosecutors that they cannot rely on the state’s feticide statute to punish patients who turn to desperate measures to end their pregnancies. This is a critical pushback against the full-scale erosion of reproductive rights and autonomy in the state.

But the fact remains that at both trial and appeal, the court and jury largely accepted the conclusions of the state’s medical experts that Patel delivered a live baby that, at least for a moment, was capable of survival outside the womb. And that is troubling. The state’s experts offered these conclusions, despite existing contradictions on key points of evidence such as the gestational age of the fetus—and thus if it was viable—and whether or not the fetus displayed evidence of life when it was born.

Patel’s attorneys tried, unsuccessfully, to rebut those conclusions. For example, the state’s medical expert used the “lung float test,” also known as the hydrostatic test, to conclude Patel’s fetus had taken a breath outside the womb. The test, developed in the 17th century, posits that if a fetus’ lungs are removed and placed in a container of liquid and the lungs float, it means the fetus drew at least one breath of air before dying. If the lungs sink, the theory holds, the fetus did not take a breath.

Not surprisingly, medical forensics has advanced since the 17th century, and medical researchers widely question the hydrostatic test’s reliability. Yet this is the only medical evidence the state presented of live birth.

Ultimately, the fact that the jury decided to accept the conclusions of the state’s experts over Patel’s is itself not shocking. Weighing the evidence and coming to a conclusion of guilt or innocence based on that evidence is what juries do. But it does suggest that when women of color are dragged before a court for a failed pregnancy, they will rarely, if ever, get the benefit of the doubt.

The jurors could have just as easily believed the evidence put forward by Patel’s attorneys that gestational age, and thus viability, was in doubt, but they didn’t. The jurors could have just as easily concluded the state’s medical testimony that the fetus took “at least one breath” was not sufficient to support convicting Patel of a felony and sending her to prison for 20 years. But they didn’t.

Why was the State of Indiana so intent on criminally prosecuting Patel, despite the many glaring weaknesses in the case against her? Why were the jurors so willing to take the State of Indiana’s word over Patel’s when presented with those weaknesses? And why did it take them less than five hours to convict her?

Patel was ordered in March to serve 20 years in prison for her conviction. Friday’s decision upends that; Patel now faces a sentence of six months to three years. She’s been in jail serving her 20 year sentence since February 2015 while her appeal moved forward. If there’s real justice in this case, Patel will be released immediately.