Justice Elena Kagan talks about life on the Supreme Court during Chicago appearance

2017-10-17 | Chicago Tribune

Oct. 17--The death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia forced the remaining eight members of the nation's highest court to work harder toward compromise, Justice Elena Kagan said Monday during a speech at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

In an hourlong appearance before law students and high-profile lawyers including Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Kagan said she hoped that effort will continue now that the court is at full strength. Kagan did not directly address the perception that the court has become increasingly politicized but instead emphasized that more than half of the court's cases are decided unanimously. After Scalia's 2016 death, the then-eight-member court decided important cases on abortion and juvenile justice but split evenly -- meaning it let lower court rulings stand -- in opinions affecting unions and immigration.

There was no mention during Kagan's talk with Chicago-Kent law professor Carolyn Shapiro of President Donald Trump, who has reportedly said he wants to replace four current Supreme Court justices during his first term. Trump replaced Scalia with Justice Neil Gorsuch earlier this year after the Senate last year refused to hold a vote on former President Barack Obama's nominee.

Kagan is known for her straightforward, sometimes colloquial written opinions -- Kagan has quoted Dr. Seuss and Spider-Man -- and said she works hard to make them read easily and understandable to nonlawyers. She called former Justice Thurgood Marshall, for whom she clerked, the finest lawyer of the 20th century.

Kagan, 57 and now the second-youngest justice after Gorsuch, drew laughter with well-worn stories about her seven years as the junior justice. The role not only involved taking notes on the justices' meetings but also serving on the cafeteria committee -- she said she successfully lobbied for a frozen yogurt machine.

She was also responsible for opening the doors to the justice's conference room, which no outsiders are allowed to enter, when someone brought coffee or reading glasses for one of the justices. Kagan said she had to continue to carry out that duty even after a foot injury left her wearing a protective walking boot. "I guess these guys are just not moving," she said, sharing her reaction to the first time a knock came after the injury.

Kagan said she and Gorsuch now laugh about who's supposed to answer. "It's a constant joke now," she said. "Because every time the door knocks, I flinch."

A former Clinton administration lawyer who became Harvard Law School's first female dean, Kagan is the fourth female Supreme Court justice. She was a University of Chicago Law School professor at the same time as Obama, joining the faculty the same year as the former president in 1991. Shapiro was one of her students.

In 2009, then-President Obama made her the country's first female solicitor general -- the attorney who represents the federal government before the Supreme Court -- a year before he appointed her to the Supreme Court.

Former Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez and U.S. District Judge Gary Feinerman were also at Monday's speech.

sschmadeke@chicagotribune.com