“Only 25?” Kagan responded.
The potential of a lifetime of duels involving the liberal Kagan and conservative Roberts — the two youngest justices — is one of the intriguing storylines to emerge from Kagan’s first year on the court. A first term provides a limited perspective, but as the court opens its new session early next month, Kagan’s performance last year offered clear signals about a woman who came to the bench as something of a mystery.
The first justice in more than 40 years who had never been a judge, Kagan established herself quickly as a forceful and insightful questioner on a court filled with strong personalities.
While Kagan’s writings as an academic did not suggest a strong legal philosophy, her opinions and dissents from the bench have shown a conversational, confident writer, at times as sarcastic and cutting as a veteran.
And liberals who worried that she would not shore up the court’s left flank have so far found their concerns unfounded. The man she replaced, Justice John Paul Stevens, said he can think of only a couple of cases where she voted differently than he would have. And the senior liberal justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seems especially taken with her. “She has already shown her talent as an incisive questioner at oral argument and a writer of eminently readable opinions,” Ginsburg said in a speech this summer.
Richard Lazarus, a Harvard law professor who closely follows the court, said the “most striking thing about the term, especially since she had never been a judge, was that she hit the ground running and seemed to fit right in at the court.”
Certainly, Kagan has reached out to her new colleagues: She’s been skeet-shooting with Antonin Scalia, to the opera with Ginsburg, to dinner with Sonia Sotomayor, shared the stage at a Harvard Law School reunion with Anthony M. Kennedy and this summer showed up at a New York University law school conference in Buenos Aires with Clarence Thomas and his wife, Virginia.
Beyond the court, the never-married Kagan moves in a social circle of old friends from law school and her stint in the Clinton White House.
“She doesn’t go to Washington parties where’s she’s invited as ‘Justice’ Elena Kagan,” said her friend Ron Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice Presidents Biden and Gore.
On the other hand, Klain said, she “has not stopped coming to social events with friends, as she always has, before she was a justice.” Recently, that included Klain’s birthday party, where a jeans-wearing Kagan was unknown to about a third of the guests, he estimates.
At 51, Kagan is the youngest of the justices and at times displays a less-formal demeanor and style. During the court’s arguments over the sale of violent video games, she casually mentioned the “iconic” game Mortal Kombat, “which I’m sure half of the clerks who work for us spent considerable amounts of time in their adolescence playing.”