An Insider's View of the Spin about Elena Kagan, President Obama's Supreme Court Choice

James O'Keefe on Fox NewsElena KaganAs soon as I heard that Elena Kagan was President Obama's choice for the Supreme Court's latest open seat, I knew the first criticism of opponents would be that she "lacked judicial experience." That does not make her unqualified for this role, given her exceptionally distinguished career as a lawyer and policymaker. It does, however, reveal the deeply disingenuous games Republicans are playing with the U.S. judicial system. I want to tell you how that is so, based on my prior experience as the lead attorney on the Justice Department Working Group on Judicial Nominations and as the former Chief Counsel for Nominations for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Republicans' Judicial Chess Game Strategy

I worked on Kagan's nomination to the D.C. Circuit in the late 1990s, along with colleagues at the Justice Department and in the White House Counsel's Office, where she had served with distinction. Kagan was nominated in June, 1999 by President Bill Clinton for that court, considered a stepping stone to the Supreme Court. At that time, I had been serving on the Justice Department's Working Group for about two years and, as was well documented at the time, the Senate under Republican control was refusing to give hearings to many of President Clinton's judicial nominees in order to preserve open seats for the next president to appoint, and deny potential Democratic Supreme Court nominees the opportunity to obtain "judicial experience," as part of the right-wing's elaborate chess game strategy to win control of the federal judiciary and our nation's future. Kagan was one of the victims of that partisan gaming of the system, and of the effort that began under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan to appoint ideologues to the bench to help roll back rights that were finally honored by the Supreme Court when Earl Warren was Chief Justice.

Warren had been a Republican presidential candidate, and served as the former governor of California. He presided over the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and formerly served as a tough prosecutor in Southern California. After he was appointed to the Supreme Court, however, he carefully considered claims by Americans that the Constitution's promises in many areas -- the right to "equal protection" of the law, the right to an attorney, the right to be free from "unreasonable searches and seizures" and other rights expressed in the Bill of Rights -- had been violated. He dared to rule in favor of ordinary people inchessboard many instances, earning the ire of right-wing Republicans. In my view, although he has been characterized as one of the most "liberal" judges, he was actually "conservative" in the sense of seeking to apply the plain language of the Constitution and its promises to the American people yearning for them to be made true. I also consider his work on the court to be in the best traditions of "progressive" judges for these same reasons, that is, for making decisions based on common sense and in favor of ordinary people whose destiny was intertwined with our nation's progress in defense of liberty. Translated, this means Warren defended fundamental human rights and the dignity of individuals.

Blockading Democratic Nominees

As I witnessed over a decade ago, Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell, Jon Kyl, and Orrin Hatch were determined to allow as few Democratic choices for the appellate bench through the Senate as possible. In 1999, the year Kagan was nominated to the D.C. Circuit, only seven of 25 appellate court nominees, or 28 percent, were allowed to be confirmed. The Senate Judiciary Committee refused to give Kagan a hearing either that year or the following year. In all, during the two years of the 106th Congress, Republicans allowed only 15 out of 34 appellate nominees of President Clinton to be confirmed. That blockade allowed President George W. Bush to inherit these open seats on the bench, and then almost immediately Republicans claimed there was a "crisis" in the courts due to the number of vacancies because almost twenty percent of the appellate judicial positions were vacant, largely due to their obstruction and delay tactics.

Disingenuous Excuses

We pressed repeatedly for a hearing for Kagan and all the other stranded judicial nominees. The Republicans refused, coming up with all sorts of excuses. For Kagan, the main excuse they gave was that she lacked judicial experience. Yet shortly after President Bush was sworn in, he nominated John Roberts for the seat to which Kagan had been nominated. Roberts had no judicial experience, but that did not stop Republicans from demanding his confirmation occur as quickly as possible. I had very deep concerns about Roberts' ideological agenda for the bench based on his past actions -- concerns that have been validated by his decisions on the Supreme Court, and especially his role in the deplorable decision in the Citizens United case, which handed corporations First Amendment free speech protections and thus the ability to spend unlimited money for or against political candidates.

When the Republicans regained control of the Senate in 2003, they quickly approved Roberts' nomination. He sat on the D.C. Circuit for just two years before President Bush tapped him for the Supreme Court after the 2004 election -- hardly extensive judicial experience. Had the Republicans not blocked Kagan from the judicial seat they rewarded Roberts with on the D.C. Circuit, she would now have over eleven years of judicial experience under her belt and they would not have any such self-serving claim to make about her experience. But that's why they blocked her in the first place, to try to keep her off of the Supreme Court.

I'm certain some of them also objected to the fact that she was 39 years old at the time of her initial nomination to the D.C. Circuit. Yet shortly after President Bush was sworn into his first term, he nominated Miguel Estrada to another vacancy on the D.C. Circuit that Republicans had kept open by blocking Allen Snyder's nomination to that court by President Clinton. Snyder was over 50 years old and had extensive experience as a litigator, but that was not good enough for the Republicans. When Bush came to power, he promptly nominated Estrada to the seat for which Snyder had been chosen, even though Estrada did not have half as much experience. Estrada, like Kagan at the time of her nomination to the D.C. Circuit, was 39. This makes it quite plain to me that the age and experience claims made back in 1999 were just subterfuge to conceal the Republicans' true effort to try to keep Kagan, with her tremendous intellectual abilities and excellent reputation, off track for the Supreme Court.

Buried Memos

It is true that when I was working as the Chief Nominations Counsel for Senator Patrick Leahy, I strongly urged and staffed the effort to block Estrada's confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, and I stand behind that work. Based on serious concerns raised by Estrada's supervisor about his hostility to firmly-settled legal precedents (translated: the likelihood he would use his role on the court to try to re-write the law to suit his political leanings) we requested copies of his Justice Department memos. The Bush Administration utterly refused to share them with the Senate Judiciary Committee, despite ample documented precedent that prior administrations had shared legal memos of nominees, including Robert Bork's memos, William Rehnquist's memos and William Bradbury's memos.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I think it is quite clear that the reason the Bush Administration refused to acknowledge precedent and accommodate the Senate's request for Estrada's memos was because it feared accepting that precedent due to explosive memos approving torture and other illegal activities that the Bush White House sought from John Yoo and Jay Bybee at the Justice Department during Bush's first term in office. In fact, despite my opposition to Bybee (based on concerns before the torture photos and memos broke), he was confirmed to the Ninth Circuit, but Estrada's nomination was successfully filibustered based on the refusal to share the memos and resolve allegations about whether he would be a fair judge and other serious concerns that arose during his confirmation hearing. At the time, we heard that he fought with the Justice Department to let some of his memos be shared with the Senate, but the White House refused, content to make him a martyr and call the Democrats names for blocking his confirmation. When he withdrew his nomination, he criticized both political parties. As an aside, Senator Bob Bennett of Utah, who was most recently defeated in a Republican primary in Utah for not being extreme enough, was the only Republican Senator who even dared to publicly propose a compromise of sharing a small sampling of Estrada's memos in order to secure his confirmation. That idea was quickly shut down by the White House, which had far more damaging memos than Estrada's that they wanted to try to deep-six.

The "Policy Work" Objection

But back to Kagan. The other objection we heard was that she was policy person who was somehow tainted by working in the White House. She had served in the White House Counsel's Office and also on the White House Domestic Policy Council. Yet during President Bush's first term, he nominated Brett Kavanaugh to another vacant seat on the D.C. Circuit. Kavanaugh was a year younger than Kagan, and he, too, had worked as a lawyer in the White House's policy realm and in politics. The difference was that he worked for a Republican White House. Kavanaugh also worked for Ken Starr in the extremely partisan, political effort to try to remove President Clinton from office through impeachment. But none of that was considered too political for a federal judgeship, once the Republicans were in the White House and in control of the Senate. We were able to block this extreme partisan's confirmation during President Bush's first term, but after the 2004 election (and after I left the Senate staff to go work for the American Civil Liberties Union on national security and Fourth Amendment issues), Kavanaugh was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit.

The "Qualifications" Objection

Observing this history of the nominations to the D.C. Circuit and the Supreme Court makes me deeply skeptical of the manipulative claims made about Kagan's qualifications to serve on the United States Supreme Court. After her confirmation was blocked, she was chosen to serve as the Dean of Harvard Law School, the first woman to serve in that role at one of the very highest ranked law schools in the United States and the world. After President Obama won election, she was nominated and confirmed to serve as the Solicitor General of the United States, to argue cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Those serving in that role have often been called the "tenth justice" in aid of the nine who sit on the nation's highest court.

At the end of the day, I don't know how Kagan will rule on disputes that come before the court, or whether she would take the same view of the law as I do, but having observed her career, I have confidence that she is no ideologue like Roberts and Alito. She may well be a so-called "moderate." I certainly hope and believe she would not blindly follow the extremism of the Roberts Court in rewriting the Constitution to give even greater power and influence to the richest and most powerful forces in our society, the big corporations.

But regardless of her views on that set of crucial issues for our democracy, she will not be a "swing vote" any time soon. The five guys in the majority in that decision are relatively young as far as Supreme Court judges go, and they might very well be a solid five-member majority for decades. If Kagan is confirmed, she may be in the minority on such issues for years to come, or she might not. I do not believe she has an agenda in the way that John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas, and their mostly "reliable" fifth vote, Anthony Kennedy did when they were chosen to serve on the Court by the right-wing of the Republican party. Despite all the right-wing rhetoric against the Clinton nominees like Kagan, the truth is that President Clinton earned the ire of progressive groups for refusing to use the nominations process to appoint people as far to the left as the Reagan and George H.W. Bush nominees to the court were to the right. That decision to turn the other cheek, so to speak, and choose moderates who did not have an ideological agenda, was almost mocked by George W. Bush and his administration, who immediately returned to the business of trying to get ideologues on the bench to take over the judicial system and alter the ground rules of the law in our country. So despite all the rhetoric and spin, it's not about experience, and it's certainly not about fairness when it comes to the right-wing effort to re-make our country through the courts.

The "No Judicial Experience" Objection

I do know for certain that judicial experience is no substitute for actual wisdom or genuine fairness. Roberts and company have surely demonstrated that. Roberts' twenty-four months on the D.C. Circuit did not transform him into a fair judge or the neutral umpire he claimed to be in his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Alito's sixteen years on the bench before Bush put him on the Supreme Court did not make him less of an ideological brother of Antonin Scalia. Clarence Thomas' one year on the D.C. Circuit did not transform him into a fair or neutral judge of disputes, nor did the twelve years Kennedy spent as a judge make him into someone who was not pretty reliable to the right wing with a few notable exceptions.

In contrast, Sandra Day O'Connor, who had no federal judicial experience, turned out to be more of a fair pragmatist than I have sometimes given her credit for. As a judge on the Supreme Court, I credit her experience in state politics as making her more willing than her brethren to see more than one side to an issue, unlike the five guys in the majority right now. And there are other truly great justices who had no judicial experience--federal or state--but who demonstrated in case after case that they were not beholden to the powers that be, such as Chief Justice Earl Warren. Such men illustrated through their decisions that they understood the tremendous power of the government needed to be restrained for the sake of liberty and posterity -- not that power had to be deferred to and expanded, whether that meant executive power or corporate power.

Call Out the Fake Claims and Consider What Really Matters

So let's call out these fake claims of qualifications, like judicial or litigation experience, and say out loud that they are not adequate proxies for wisdom, compassion and fairness. Those are the traits that really matter in giving a person the lifetime role of sitting in judgment of other people's disputes, of cases that affect whether people will live or die, whether their equal rights and human dignity will be honored or denied, and whether America will fulfill its promises set out in the charter of rights of human beings, or fail in its commitment to be a place of liberty and justice for all.

Lisa Graves is the Executive Director of the Center for Media and Democracy.

Lisa Graves

Lisa Graves is President of the Board of the Center for Media and Democracy and President of True North Research. She is a well-known researcher, writer, and public speaker. Her research and analysis have been cited by every major paper in the country and featured in critically acclaimed books and documentaries, including Ava Du Vernay’s award-winning film, “The 13th,” Bill Moyers’s “United States of ALEC,” and Showtime’s “Years of Living Dangerously.”



It's a deplorable situation when the "tweets" of Sarah Palin get extensive media coverage, but that mainstream media is utterly unconscious of this thoughtful and insightful article by Lisa Graves. Though the kinds of dirty operations have been going on for decades in all areas of politics and culture, even the more intelligent of the ordinary people have been largely unaware of the "conservative" machinations. I agree with you, Lisa, that the repeated "turning of the other cheek" by progressives and moderates to the slapping by what I call "corporatists", is counterproductive and not even Christian. One slap, and one turn of the cheek, maybe, but after the second slap it's time to slap back or at least step back.

I really appreciate your note! I agree wholeheartedly that turning the other cheek given what is happening and the stakes is the wrong approach!! Lisa

Your arguments are convincing, but there are two other issues that are regularly ignored. One is the religious makeup of the court. Kagan's appointment would leave 3 Jewish Judges, or 33% of the court, when less than 2% of the country is Jewish. 6 of the Supremes are Roman Catholic, 66%, when less than 25% of American citizens are Catholic. Not diverse, not balanced. Second is the ideology and political connectedness they bring from their law school. All but one, Ginsburg, would be from Harvard or Yale law school. Not diverse, not balanced. BTW, 4 are members of the Federalist Society! Wow!

Dear W.I.D.-- You make some interesting points here about the extent to which the Supreme Court does not reflect the diversity of religious and socio-economic experiences of the American people. I'm not in favor a rigid representation statistically, but as you point out the stats seem greatly out of proportion. And, on the Federalist Society front, that is another way and a far more telling way that the Court's membership has been distorted by interest groups than religious affiliation. After all, one's religion does not necessarily dictate one's view on policy issues as there are Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Greens and others who are Jewish or Catholic or Christian or hale from other religions or none. But there are no Democrats or Greens that are Federalist Society members (although some have been invited to participate in Fed-Soc "debates"), or almost none. The Federalist Society membership demonstrates an ideological commitment to moving the law in a particular direction on a range of legal policy issues, even though the feudalists (and I mean that term as a better description than "federalists") claim not to have particular positions. They are really the "true believers" of a set of tenets that endorse an expansive view of executive power and corporate power and oppose liberties and protections for ordinary people in general, although sometimes their corporatist policy preferences also benefit some individuals incidentally. Their positions, or what might be called the focus of their intellectual energies, are outside of the mainstream. When I was working for the Senate Judiciary Committee, over half of President George W. Bush's appellate nominees were associated with the Federalist Society, which was said to be helping select candidates for the bench for G.W.... And, as for Harvard and Yale, as a Cornell Law grad I suppose it might sound like sour grapes for me to complain about the domination of these schools in judicial selection. I do think the federal bench would benefit from greater diversity of experience, including educational diversity and the economic diversity that sometimes reflects. At the same time, it is plain to me that growing up poor does not necessarily make someone compassionate for the plight of those less fortunate, as Clarence Thomas demonstrates in almost every opinion he writes. That is, none of these attributes (religion, education, economic background) are adequate proxies for wisdom, fairness, and compassion. Thank you for writing in! Lisa

The pistol-whipping of the American public often happened so fast in the early 0's it's hard to fathom yet so clear to see here the pervasiveness of the steps taken by the the gop to suppress, repress and deny democracy its due in America.

Thank you so much for your note!! The right-wing in our political system, which has adherents from both major parties, is indeed damaging our legal system and our future....

There's a little bit more to this than just "Republican bashing". Two professors at Harvard were nailed plagiarising other people's work...Prof. Laurence Tribe and Prof. Charles Ogletree...after they were caught, Harvard investigated and said that nothing wrong had other words, plagiarism is no big deal at Harvard ...and Miss Kagan concurred! Could it be that Harvard tried to whitewash this thing? Why would anyone believe that Harvard is going to conduct an objective investigation when two of their premiere professors' reputations are at stake? What would happen to the college's collegiate reputation? Prof. Ogletree goes on to tell the Boston Globe about how his assistants were to blame and then concludes that he is taking all the responsibility!! How can you pin this on your "assistants" and then say that you are going to take the blame? What sort of twisted logic is that? Miss Kagan supported this nonsense...and if the past is prologue, she'll do the same sorts of weird things on the bench to protect her particular interests.

Dear Jerry: With all due respect, the claims about Kagan and the law professors seem like quite a smear to me. As Dean of Harvard Law School, she appointed a committee to investigate allegations of plagiarism by Professors Ogletree and Tribe, which was the appropriate procedure for such an investigation of academic conduct. The investigation of Professor Ogletree revealed that a passage of a book he published contained unattributed material that was prepared by law clerks, to whom he had delegated research and writing. I don't think any objective reader could reasonably find that Professor Ogletree intentionally plagiarized a colleague, but he did apparently trust that his research and writing staff would not engage in plagiarism. The idea that Kagan should be disqualified from serving on the Supreme Court because student researchers for a book she did not write or publish or have anything to with failed to document their sources is a bridge too far. As for Professor Tribe, it reads to me that the committee was critical of his failure to cite material 25 years ago in a book that was not the kind that involved footnoting but that should have used quotation marks for the material at issue from another book he credited in that book. That is to say, the Committee took issue with his actions a quarter century ago but did not fire him. To suggest that Kagan engaged in any disqualifying conduct here by not overturning the recommendation and criticism of the committee investigating the allegations against Professor Tribe is really stretching it. These claims are pretty slender reeds to suggest that she herself would not properly cite referenced material if she were confirmed. There is no allegation in these claims that she engaged in any plagiarism herself. I think this sort of re-hashing of someone else's conduct and trying to pin it on her is real reach. Should she have reprimanded them further? It seems they were humiliated by the investigation she authorized, whereas if she were like President Bush and Attorney General Gonzales, she never would have allowed an investigation into any claims of misconduct of key personnel who worked for her, as they blocked efforts to appoint an independent counsel to investigate claims of warrantless wiretapping and torture, far more serious matters. Instead, she approved an investigation and there were no apparent grounds for her to overturn the results of that investigation. To suggest a character flaw on her part for all this is really too much. Lisa Graves

Sure, you and others can provide unofficial testimony, but ultimately, without a paper trail, we as citizens are left to guess where she stands, other than, with "love" for "teaching" and "the law." You have also overlooked the fact that she's being promoted within the current Democratic spin parameters: her hiring of right-wingers at Harvard supposedly makes her a "consensus builder." Where have we heard that one before?

You make an excellent point about needed more than unofficial testimony. As I mentioned, I do not know how she would be as a judge. My sense of her was that she was not closed minded in the way that Roberts' writings demonstrated with his clever results-oriented intellectual gymnastics. But, I agree strongly with you that the American people deserve to know more, much more, about the people who are being entrusted to serve for the rest of their lives on the highest court in the country. And, I am hoping that more information about Kagan will become known so that people can weigh on on the appointment, as the confirmation process is regrettably the only current democratic check on the court. I think that needs to be reformed. On the consensus builder front, I agree that that "skill" is very over-rated and even worrisome. There are far more important qualities for a judge than that. Plus, I think there are many issues where "compromise" is just compromising in the perjorative sense. I don't want the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement, for example, to be watered down to get "consensus"--I want it enforced fully by the courts. And there are many more rights I think we must demand be protected not mediated.... Thank you for writing! Lisa