Elena Kagan's role on Supreme Court: defender of 'ordinary people'?

Elena Kagan moved one step closer Tuesday to becoming the third woman on the US Supreme Court, to the satisfaction of President Obama and women's groups. Next up: full Senate debate and a vote before the August recess.

By , Staff writer

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    Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this photo taken June 30.
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President Obama praised the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on Tuesday endorsing his Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, saying the action was a “bipartisan affirmation of her strong performance during her confirmation hearings.”

“Elena Kagan is one of this country’s leading legal minds,” the president said in a written statement thanking the committee members.

The committee vote sends Ms. Kagan’s nomination to the full Senate for debate and a vote before the August recess. She is widely expected to win confirmation.

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“This is a good day for our nation. We applaud the Senate Judiciary Committee for bringing us one step closer to the day when – for the first time in history – three women will serve together on our highest court,” said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

“This important first for the Supreme Court is one more step toward the time when women justices will no longer be viewed as the exception, but rather part of what is normal and routine,” said Marcia Greenberger of the National Women’s Law Center.

Kagan has already had a pioneering career for women in the law. She is the first woman appointed as US solicitor general and the first woman to serve as dean of the Harvard Law School.

If confirmed, she would become only the fourth woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

In his statement, Mr. Obama noted that Kagan had demonstrated that she would be a “fair and impartial Supreme Court justice who understands how decisions made by the Court affect the lives of everyday Americans.”

The comment echoes Obama’s criticism of the high court after its decision earlier this year striking down a portion of a campaign finance reform statute. The decision, in a case called Citizens United v. FEC, invalidated government restrictions on how and when corporations could spend money to engage in political debate during election season.

Republicans have defended the decision as a protection of free speech, including the speech of small nonprofit corporations. Democrats – and the president – have denounced it as potentially opening the flood gates for unlimited corporate dollars spent in federal elections that may drown out the voices of the less wealthy.

During the Kagan hearings, both the White House and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee have sought to portray the Supreme Court as heavily pro-corporation and pro-business. They have suggested that Kagan, if confirmed, would fight for ordinary citizens.

The president himself set the tone when announcing Kagan’s nomination on May 10. He said she had an understanding of the law “as it affects the lives of ordinary people.”

He added that “in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens.”

During her hearing three weeks ago, Kagan was asked whether she’d be the kind of justice who would favor the little guy against the big guy, the powerful, or corporations.

“I think the courts have to be level playing fields and that everybody has to have an opportunity to go before the court, to state his case and to get equal justice,” she said.

“Everybody is entitled to have his claim heard. Everybody is entitled to fair consideration,” Kagan testified.

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