Image: Elena Kagan, Harry Reid
Alex Brandon  /  AP
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left, meets with Supreme Court nominee Solicitor General Elena Kagan on Capitol Hill on Wednesday,
updated 5/12/2010 4:43:37 PM ET 2010-05-12T20:43:37

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan defended herself Wednesday against Republican charges she's not fit to be a justice as she met for the first time with senators who hold the key to her confirmation.

Publicly mum as she made the rounds on Capitol Hill, Kagan sought during a series of private meetings to beat back GOP suggestions that she'd be a liberal rubber stamp for President Obama, who named her Monday to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

"She's been politically active throughout her life, she's identified with the American liberal position, she clerked for two activist judges," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel that will hold hearings on Kagan's nomination.

Sessions said he asked Kagan during a lengthy meeting whether she understood she might be called upon as a justice to issue rulings that might disappoint her "fans and supporters." The 50-year-old solicitor general responded "that she would be faithful to the law, but of course every nominee says that," Sessions said. "Some of our most activist judges have said that."

The exchange came on a day when senators in both parties promised a fair confirmation process for Kagan, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pledged as he welcomed her to the Capitol to make it "as smooth as possible." Barring a surprise, Kagan is likely to be confirmed this summer by a Senate where Democrats have more than enough votes to prevail and Republicans are showing little appetite for a Supreme Court showdown.

Hot-button legal issues
Still, the debate is virtually certain to become a forum for the two parties to battle over the direction of the court and hot-button legal issues from abortion to political speech.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said before visiting with her that Kagan must prove that her current post on Obama's team wouldn't skew her rulings to favor his policies.

"It's my hope that the Obama administration doesn't think the ideal Supreme Court nominee is someone who would rubber stamp its policies," McConnell said. "Americans want to know that Ms. Kagan will be independent, that she won't prejudge cases based on her personal opinions, that she'll treat every one equally, as the judicial oath requires."

Kagan stayed virtually silent in public Wednesday as reporters trailed her through the Capitol and senators' office buildings, ignoring shouted questions about her nomination and even her mood as she shuttled from meeting to closely watched meeting.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Judiciary Committee chairman, said Kagan will get "a fair hearing."

"I will guarantee that all Democratic senators and all Republican senators are able to ask all relevant questions, and I'm sure she'll answer them," he said after their visit.

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And he suggested the former Harvard Law School dean could be a welcome counterbalance to what he called an "activist conservative majority" that currently dominates the high court.

"We've seen how a narrow conservative majority on the nation's highest court has ignored in many instances congressional intent and the court's own precedent to overturn decades of law, to limit protections for workers of all ages, to curb access to court, to muffle Americans' voices in their elections," Leahy said. Kagan, he added, "feels the law matters in people's lives."

‘A tradition of activist judges’
Republicans, on the other hand, worry that Kagan will bring liberal extremism to the court.

"She does come out of a tradition of activist judges," Sessions said, citing her clerkships for Abner Mikva and Thurgood Marshall.

Sessions pressed Kagan during their meeting about her decision to bar military recruiters from Harvard's campus because she disagreed with the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay soldiers. Sessions called that "a big mistake."

Sessions also said he asked Kagan about what he called her "thin" experience, having never been a judge or spent much time as a litigator, and she responded that "she felt she had the experience to do the job," he said.

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Video: SCOTUS charm offensive begins

  1. Closed captioning of: SCOTUS charm offensive begins

    >> to the first hole.

    >>> elena kagan heads to capitol hill shortly to begin making rounds with senators who will help determine whether she becomes the next supreme court justice .

    >> the white house is cranking up its message machine to support its nominee. that job belongs to anita dunn joining us now. explain exactly what is your official role with this supreme court nomination process?

    >> my official role is not a white house role. it is helping to coordinate the many groups outside of the white house , groups that range from people who are interested in civil rights to women's rights to protecting the environment.

    >> let's start with those groups.

    >> the groups who are interested in the supreme court and interested in this nomination .

    >> so the interest groups and we know there are some supporters on the left not happy with the fact that she don't know the anything about elena kagan . moveon is thinking about doing a public campaign to get democratic senators to demand more information. what are you telling these groups? what is the wink and the nod that you're giving them on their specific issues?

    >> there's no wink and nod on any specific issue. she's going to be in front of the senate judiciary committee . both sides have indicated they intend to have robust hearings which is what she expects and what she clearly thinks is appropriate. here's what we tell people and here's what we would tell people is that she is a woman who has spent her life in public service , whose grandparents were immigrants. her mother was a public school teacher. her father who was a yale law graduate spent one year with a large corporate law firm and decide that had wasn't what he wanted to do. he ended up protecting the rights of the tenants against large landlords and being very involved in his community. she combined those things into a life of public service whether it was at the deputy policy council in the clinton white house , you know, first woman dean of harvard law school , first woman solicitor general often known as the tenth justice. teaching, writing, public service , clerking for thurgood marshall . it's a combination.

    >> that speaks to her qualifications which a simple read of her resume will reveal. what frankly some progressive groups are asking is, where does she stand on substance?

    >> there's nothing in her record that would reveal her record on these pressing constitutional issues of the day.

    >> start with executive power .

    >> now she's written. but let's say roe versus wade , any number of issues important to the various groups you can read all her writings all day long and never discern it. how can you reassure them?

    >> this is a woman who has worked for two democratic rezes both in policy positions and in legal positions. she has a record of teaching. she has a record of as dean of harvard law school working to, you know, get those talented young lawyers into the community, expending the pro bow know service, working hard to expand the parts of harvard law school that will look at public interest law. she is a person who has a demonstrated career of listening to both sides of the issues as they like to say listening before disagreeing. she has the qualifications but she also has a career that i think people in the progressive community can look at and say she's worked for two democratic presidents and clearly has a very strong sense of community and of what public service is about from her parents and done it in her career.

    >> essentially though you're asking these groups to go on faith?

    >> no, what we're saying is there's going to be a hearing process. no supreme court nominee is going to go in front of the senate judiciary committee and say here's how i'm going to rule on these issues. it's inappropriate. we would not want to confirm a person like that. we want to say this is a woman whose qualifications are excellent and who clearly has been in the mainstream of you know, the mainstream of public service in this country throughout her adult career sneaking of debate of inappropriate or appropriate, yesterday popped up apparently elena kagan gave an interview but gave it to a white house staffer and it was posted on a website. we in the press corps were told, there's your interview with elena kagan . is it really an appropriate way do that? not offer her up to interviews publicly to the press but do one that's sort of te house made a decision yet or if she's made a decision on doing interviews with the press. it's certainly not unusual for the white house website to host interviews. and to provide access for people to hear directly from administration officials. we do it all the time. we do it all the time in the white house . it is an interview. it could be called a video. okay? it could be called a video.

    >> former white house .

    >> you do this all the time.

    >> we know.

    >> if you want behind the scenes video at the white house , great stuff.

    >> she's shameless. once a communications director always a communications director . thank you so much .

    >> thank you for having me.

    >>> coming up, an update on


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