A U.S. Supreme Court justice deemed “the hippest” among the nine that govern the highest court in the country visited the University of Colorado Boulder on Tuesday.
Justice Elena Kagan stepped onto the Macky Auditorium stage to applause from more than 2,000 people. The event was organized by the Byron R. White Center and was part of the yearly John Stevens Lecture series named in honor of the late former Supreme Court justice.
As the applause subsided, Kagan joined Suzette Malveaux , the provost professor of Civil Rights Law and director of the Byron R. White Center, in a fireside chat-style conversation. During the talk six law school students were given the chance to ask Kagan a question.
Throughout her talk, Kagan, 59, imparted humor, wisdom and glimpse at life as a Supreme Court justice.
Kagan was appointed by then-President Barack Obama to fill Stevens’ seat after he retired in 2010. She talked about the late Stevens’ influence on her as a justice and how she adopted his belief that it was important to learn something new from the role every day.
“He long has been a hero of mine,” Kagan said. “I think in terms of his judicial legacy, what he will go down in history for is a deep commitment to the rule of law and the principal that no person, however high or mighty, is above the law. Whether you are powerful or powerless … you are entitled to be treated by the legal system with the same dignity as the rich and powerful.”
Leading up to her role on the Supreme Court, Kagan graduated with a juris doctorate from Harvard Law School. In 1987, she would serve as a law clerk to Thurgood Marshall, the court’s first African American justice, serving from 1967 to 1991. Kagan described Marshall as a the 20th century’s most influential lawyer due to his ability to “break the back of Jim Crow” laws.
In addition, Kagan became the first female solicitor general of the United States in 2009. She has also served former presidents Bill Clinton and Obama.
While Kagan’s talk was largely humorous and light-hearted, she touched on more challenging aspects of the job.
Malveaux asked how Kagan was able to get along with justices, even if their opinions on an important decision differed.
“There are really good friendships on the court, among those who disagree with each other,” Kagan said. “For that matter, every one you agree with is not necessarily someone you like.”
She quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who said, “If you take this personally, you are in the wrong business.”
Kagan added that the justices sometimes have lunch together, avoiding talk about cases and politics.
“We talk about books and movies,” Kagan said. “Justice Ginsburg likes us to talk about opera, but nobody else really knows much about opera.”
But Malveaux questioned when it was the right time to dissent and the right time to reach a consensus.
Kagan said she chooses to dissent when fundamental principles are at stake. She described one contentious decision the justices ruled on this summer, when they had to decide whether courts should get involved in political gerrymandering, the drawing of voting districts to benefit a political agenda. Kagan “respectfully” dissented against the majority’s decision that the court couldn’t get involved.
“If the court is not going to protect the basic structures of democracy, then it is hard to know what the court’s role is,” she said. “I think the majority failed to do that and I said so.”
While Kagan’s storied law career includes many professional titles, Malveaux called one into question: Washington media’s identification of Kagan as the “hippest justice.”
“It might be a low bar,” Kagan joked.
Kagan disputed the title, saying Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg , who also is known in pop culture as the Notorious RGB, was deserving of the title. Speculating as to how she garnered the role “hippest justice” Kagan said it might have come from her pop culture references.
She described an opinion she wrote containing numerous Spider-Man references. The opinion was in reference to a patent for gloves designed to shoot out webbing, like that of the comic book character. She is also known to quote Dr. Seuss and said she has been asked to sign Theodor Geisel’s book, “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.” Most justices, she said, are asked to sign photographs of themselves.
Tickets to the lecture were free and available to the public, though CU law school students were given priority access. During the event, Kagan offered her advice to students studying law. While she said she first started studying law because she didn’t know what career path to chose, she quickly found it to be her passion. She encouraged students to not be intent on following rigid academic and career plans. Instead, she said they should pursue the aspects of law that most inspire and influence them.
“For the most part, things come out of the blue,” Kagan said. “That’s the way life works.”