President Obama today announced he has nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
Kagan, 50, is considered one of the finest legal scholars in the country, dazzling both fellow liberal and conservative friends with her intellectual and analytical prowess but also her ability to find consensus among ideological opposites.
"She's a solid, hard working, intelligent, really smart lawyer, who's had an extraordinary amount of experience in the law even though she hasn't been a judge," Greg Craig, former White House counsel, said on "Good Morning America" today. "Politically, I think she's also as mainstream as they can get."
Kagan, who first met Obama when they taught together at the University of Chicago, serves as solicitor general, arguing the administration's position at the Supreme Court, as well as supervising the handling of litigation in federal appellate courts. She was the first woman to be appointed as solicitor general, and if confirmed, would be the first justice in four decades who has not served as a judge.
Kagan hails from outside the so-called "judicial monastery" and is known for her intellectual heft, which could help her hold her own against more conservative justices and perhaps sway wavering justices to her position on divisive issues.
"Elena is universally well-liked and trusted by lawyers on both the right and left of the political spectrum," said Bradford Bereson, former associate counsel in the George W. Bush White House. "Her congeniality, flexibility, and moderate demeanor would serve her well on the Supreme Court, where she would have uncommon potential to build coalitions and consensus with her judicial colleagues, at least over time. She could turn out to be a genuinely influential justice."
Unlike other candidates on the president's short list, Kagan is in some ways an unknown. Because she has never served on the bench, there's no paper trail to identify her position on some of the hot topics of the day. Although she served in the Clinton White House, and later as dean of Harvard's Law School, she has written little that might reflect positions she would take as a judge.
Since becoming solicitor general, she has personally argued six cases in front of the court on issues such as campaign finance, free speech and national security, but little can be drawn from her arguments because as solicitor general she is obligated to argue the administration's position regardless of whether she personally supports it.
In her confirmation hearing to be the first woman to hold the office of solicitor general, she was asked about her relative lack of courtroom experience.
"I think I bring up a lifetime of learning and study of the law, and particularly of the constitutional and administrative law issues that form the core of the court's docket," she said." I think I bring up some of the communication skills that has made me -- I'm just going to say -- a famously excellent teacher."
Kagan, born to immigrant parents in New York City, is a product of the Ivy league. She graduated from Princeton University in 1981 and went on to Harvard Law School in 1986.