Nightly News   |  May 10, 2010

Kagan's critics pore over thin paper trail

President Obama revealed Monday that he's nominating U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, the former dean of Harvard Law School, to succeed Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who plans to step down next month

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BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: She was the first woman to serve as dean of Harvard law school and the first woman solicitor general , the government 's lawyer at the Supreme Court . If President Obama has his way, she'll be just the fourth woman in US history to take a seat on the Supreme Court . She is Elena Kagan . She's from New York , and while she's never been a judge, she has that in common with a host of justices on the court throughout history. Today the president praised her legal mind. Now we wait and see how tough a fight this will be. We begin our coverage here tonight with our justice correspondent Pete Williams at the Supreme Court . Pete , good evening.

PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian, the president today called her a woman of many firsts, but one thing she's never been is a judge. That lack of experience is already becoming an issue, even though roughly one-third of all Supreme Court justices were never judges when they got here, either. Mr. Obama called Elena Kagan , the second Supreme Court nominee of his presidency, someone who can bring people together.

President BARACK OBAMA: Elena is respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament, her openness to a broad array of viewpoints.

P. WILLIAMS: She's the child of a New York housing rights lawyer father and a public school teacher mother.

Ms. ELENA KAGAN: My parents' lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have. And I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.

P. WILLIAMS: Judging from her high school yearbook, she had early aspirations to wield a gavel. Classmates say she was a standout in a school of overachievers.

Ms. JUSTENE ADAMEC (Former Classmate): She would speak up and talk to the teachers as if she was much older. She knew far more history and far more of the news events that the rest of us had not started paying attention to.

P. WILLIAMS: After Princeton and Harvard law school , she clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall , who called her "Shortie." For most of the 1990s she taught law at the University of Chicago , where she met a young Barack Obama , a part-time faculty member. She served President Clinton as a lawyer and policy adviser and later became the first woman dean of Harvard law . She diversified the faculty, hiring prominent conservatives. But her tenure included controversy; she enforced a long-standing anti-discrimination policy there, blocking military recruiters from the law school because of the Pentagon 's ban on gays in the military . Last year President Obama appointed her solicitor general , responsible for arguing the government 's position before the Supreme Court .

Ms. KAGAN: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the court , I have three very quick points to make about the government 's position.

P. WILLIAMS: Some Republicans say her lack of experience as a judge clouds her nomination .

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Minority Leader): The lifetime position on the Supreme Court does not lend itself to on-the-job training.

P. WILLIAMS: But some Senate Democrats consider her background a plus.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair): I worry when you're in a judicial monastery that you don't have the kind of real world experience you might have otherwise. So I -- and she brings a breadth of experience .

P. WILLIAMS: And a Supreme Court expert says her lack of experience as a judge leaves a scant paper trail .

Mr. TOM GOLDSTEIN (Supreme Court Expert): No track record when it comes to abortion, affirmative action , religion, a lot of the hot button social issues that could give rise to a huge nomination fight.

P. WILLIAMS: A few other points about her: accomplished poker player, opera lover, and, given that nickname that Justice Marshall gave to her, she's five foot 3", Brian.