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Profile of Elena Kagan - Elena Kagan Biography

Supreme Court Justice Has Many "Firsts" in Her Distinguished Career

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Profile of Elena Kagan - Elena Kagan Biography
© Alex Wong/Getty Images
Updated April 01, 2012
Name:

Elena Kagan

Position:

  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice
    Nominated by President Barack Obama on May 10, 2010
    Approved by Senate Judiciary Committee on July 20, 2010
    Confirmed by the Senate on August 5, 2010
  • Former U.S. Solicitor General in the Obama Administration (first woman to serve in that position)

Born:

April 28, 1960 in New York City

Education:

Hunter College Elementary School
Hunter College High School. Graduated 1977.

Undergraduate:

Princeton University, B.A. in History. Graduated summa cum laude 1981.

Graduate & Law School:

Oxford University, M.A. in Philosophy. Graduated 1983.
Harvard Law School, J.D. Graduated magna cum laude 1986.

Family Background

The second of three children born to Robert Kagan and Gloria Gittelman Kagan, Elena was the couple's only daughter. A Yale Law School graduate, her father secured federal protections for Native Americans and later represented tenant associations facing apartment/co-op conversions. Her mother taught poor students in Harlem, then worked as a 5th and 6th grade teacher at Hunter College Elementary School.

Elena grew up in a modest four-room apartment in Stuyvesant Town, sharing a room with brothers Marc and Irving until the family moved to Manhattan's Upper West Side when she was a teenager.

Childhood & Early Influences The Kagan children were raised in a home filled with books and art. Elena attended Hebrew school and Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox Jewish temple.

Self confident at an early age, Kagan challenged the rabbi at Lincoln Square by insisting on a bat mitzvah. A coming-of-age ritual, bar mitzvahs for boys were commonplace but the rabbi had never done a bat mitzvah for a girl. Hoping to read from the Torah during a Saturday morning service just like the boys, Kagan had to settle for reading from the Book of Ruth on a Friday night -- a less-than-equitable situation that likely rankled Kagan.

College Experiences

At age 17 she entered her freshman year at Princeton, one of the youngest members of her class. She began writing for the daily Princetonian student newspaper and hoped to become its top editor junior year but ended up overseeing the editorial writing team. Her friends included fellow Princetonian staffer Bruce Reed (who would become a key player in the Clinton administration) and Eliot Spitzer (the infamous former Governor of New York).

Early Political Disappointment

In the fall of 1980, Kagan worked as a campaign press assistant for Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (D-Brooklyn) who was running for the Senate. A women's issues advocate, the liberal congresswoman was expected to win; but her narrow loss devastated the idealistic young Kagan who described getting drunk on vodka and crying over the defeat in a rare confessional opinion piece for the Princetonian. Other than that significant moment, Kagan expressed few political views publicly.

Graduate & Law School Experiences

In her senior year Kagan won Princeton's Daniel M. Sachs scholarship (similar to the Rhodes scholarship) and attended Oxford University's Worcester College for two years, where she was coxswain for a women's crew team.

Disappointing her father (who had hoped she'd choose his alma mater Yale), Kagan decided to attend Harvard Law School, where she made the Harvard Law Review and graduated magna cum laude.

Judicial System Career

Kagan's Washington career began in 1986 when she clerked for Abner J. Mikva, a liberal judge who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Her exemplary work ethic didn't preclude her from playing poker and basketball with the other clerks during free time. In 1987 she moved on to clerk for Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, who nicknamed her "Shorty."

Private Sector & Early Academic Career

From 1988-1991 she was an associate in the Washington firm William & Connolly. In 1991 she joined the faculty at the University of Chicago Law School at the same time Illinois state senator Barack Obama began teaching constitutional law there.

Kagan earned tenure in 1995 but took a leave when her old boss Abner Mikva, now White House counsel to President Bill Clinton, offered her a position as an associate counsel. She worked on domestic policy issues such as welfare reform and child support enforcement. In 1997 former classmate Bruce Reed, now Clinton's domestic policy advisor, hired her as his deputy.

Thwarted Aspirations

Although she was nominated by President Clinton in 1999 to the federal appeals court for the D.C. Circuit, a hearing was never scheduled. (Ironically, the seat went to John G. Roberts Jr., who today serves as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.)

Next page: Kagan breaks new ground in a series of "firsts" for women

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