WASHINGTON – The Senate confirmed Elena Kagan Thursday as the Supreme Court’s 112th justice and the fourth woman in its history, granting a lifetime term to a lawyer and academic with a reputation for brilliance, a dry sense of humor and a liberal bent.
The vote was 63-37 for President Barack Obama’s nominee to succeed retired Justice John Paul Stevens.
Five Republicans joined all but one Democrat and the Senate’s two independents to support Kagan. In a rarely practiced ritual reserved for the most historic votes, senators sat at their desks and stood to cast their votes with “ayes” and “nays.”
Kagan watched on TV in the conference room at the solicitor general’s office, with her Justice Department colleagues looking on. She’s to be sworn in Saturday afternoon at the court by Chief Justice John Roberts.
Obama, traveling in Chicago, said Kagan will make an outstanding justice who understands that her rulings affect people, and called the addition of another woman to the court a sign of progress for the country. He invited Kagan to the White House Friday for a ceremony marking her confirmation.
The vote, Obama said, was “an affirmation of her character and her temperament; her open-mindedness and evenhandedness; her determination to hear all sides of every story and consider all possible arguments.”
Kagan isn’t expected to alter the ideological balance of the court, where Stevens was considered a leader of the liberal wing. But the two parties clashed over her nomination and the court itself. Republicans argued that Kagan was a politically motivated activist who would be unable to put aside her opinions and rule impartially. Democrats defended her as a highly qualified trailblazer for women who could bring a note of moderation and real-world experience to a polarized court they said was dominated by just the kind of activists the GOP denounced.
Kagan is the first Supreme Court nominee in nearly 40 years with no experience as a judge, and her swearing-in will mark the first time in history that three women will serve on the nine-member court together.
Her lack of judicial experience was the stated reason for one fence-sitting Republican, Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, to announce his opposition to Kagan’s confirmation Thursday, just hours before the vote.
Though calling her “brilliant,” Brown — who had been seen as a potential GOP supporter — said she was missing the necessary background to serve as a justice.
“The best umpires, to use the popular analogy, must not only call balls and strikes, but also have spent enough time on the playing field to know the strike zone,” Brown said.
Democrats said they hoped Kagan would act as a counterweight to the conservative majority that’s dominated the Supreme Court in recent years.
“I believe she understands that judges and justices must realize how the law affects Americans each and every day. That understanding is fundamental,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman. With her confirmation, he said, “the Supreme Court will better reflect the diversity that made our country great.”
Most Republicans portrayed Kagan as a partisan who will use her post to push the Democratic agenda from the bench.
Kagan “is truly a person of the political left — now they call themselves progressives — one who has a history of working to advance the values of the left wing of the Democratic Party, and whose philosophy of judging allows a judge to utilize the power of their office to advance their vision for what America should be,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Just one Democrat — centrist Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska — crossed party lines to oppose Kagan.
A handful of mostly moderate Republicans broke with their party to back her: Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, South Carolina’s Sen. Lindsey Graham, retiring Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, and Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar.
They argued that partisanship should play no role in debates over the Supreme Court and have called Obama’s nominee qualified.
Still, it was clear that unlike in past decades — when high court nominees enjoyed the support of large majorities on both sides — party politics was driving the debate and vote on Kagan, much as it did last year when the Senate considered Obama’s first pick, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and former President George W. Bush’s two nominees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
GOP senators have criticized Kagan for her decision as dean to bar military recruiters from the Harvard Law School career services office because of the prohibition against openly gay soldiers. Republicans spent the last hours of debate accusing her of being hostile to gun rights, and they have also spent considerable time criticizing her stance in favor of abortion rights.
Kagan revealed little about what kind of justice she would be in weeks of private one-on-one meetings with senators and several days of testimony before the Judiciary panel, despite having famously penned a law review article blasting Supreme Court nominees for obfuscating before the Senate. She dodged questions about her personal beliefs on a host of hot-button issues and declined repeatedly to “grade” Supreme Court rulings.
But her public appearances and documents unearthed from her time serving as a Clinton administration lawyer and domestic policy aide painted a portrait of the kind of personality she’ll bring to the bench. She came across as a sharp intellect who enjoys the thrust and parry of legal debate, someone who’s willing to throw elbows to make her opinions heard but nonetheless eager to facilitate consensus. She also showed flashes of a playful, dry wit senators said would serve her well in sometimes tense court deliberations.
Kagan will be no stranger to the eight justices she is to join on the Supreme Court, having served as the government’s top lawyer arguing cases before them in a post often referred to as the “10th justice.” She’s already friendly with a number of them, not least Antonin Scalia, the conservative justice who is her ideological opposite.
Kagan’s nomination to a seat on the nation’s highest court drew relatively little notice this summer, with the public and elected officials preoccupied by bad economic news and the Gulf oil spill, and many lawmakers nervously eyeing the November midterm congressional elections.
But senators used the debate to press their dueling visions of the Supreme Court.
When sworn in, Kagan will join two other women on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sotomayor, who was Obama’s first nominee. Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the court, by President Ronald Reagan. She served from September 1981 to January 2006.
Not since 1972 has the Senate confirmed a Supreme Court nominee without experience as a judge. That year, both William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell Jr. joined the court.
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