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Harvard Dean, Chosen as Solicitor General, Goes Before Senators
She clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom she described after his death as "the most important -- and probably the greatest -- lawyer of the 20th century." Except for a two-year stint in the Washington offices of Williams & Connolly, she has spent her career in government and academia, and has a prominent gap in her deep résumé: She has never argued a case at the Supreme Court or in any appeals court.
Instead, she taught law at the University of Chicago, where she was part of a group that tried to interest a part-time constitutional law lecturer named Barack Obama in committing to a full-time life in academia. She joined the Clinton administration, first as an associate counsel and then as a domestic policy adviser. "Wonderwonk" was the title of the article the New Republic wrote about her role when the administration worked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to try to give the government more regulatory power over tobacco.
President Bill Clinton nominated her for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, but the Republican-controlled Senate never brought her up for a vote.
She joined the Harvard faculty as a professor and was shortly named dean. She's won widespread praise for bringing peace to warring factions of the faculty and has, in the words of faculty member and liberal scholar Laurence H. Tribe, "transformed a school that was much less than the sum of its parts" when she arrived.
She made the school friendlier to students with free coffee and a volleyball court, enacted financial incentives to encourage public service after graduation, began an ambitious effort to revamp the curriculum and went on a hiring binge to bring to Cambridge superstar legal scholars across the ideological spectrum.
"No dean of any modern American law school has done what she's done," Tribe said.
In filing a friend of the court brief opposing the Solomon Amendment, she and others at Harvard argued that the military's ban on gays violated the law school's right to prohibit employers who discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.
After the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled the amendment unconstitutional, she directed the school's Office of Career Services to stop providing help to military recruiters, although she said in a letter to the faculty that the military retained full access to students through the Harvard Law School Veterans Association.
Kagan called the military's ban on gays "a moral injustice of the first order," adding, "The importance of the military to our society -- and the extraordinary service that members of the military provide to all the rest of us -- makes this discrimination more, not less, repugnant."
She relented when the case moved to the Supreme Court.
If confirmed, Kagan will hope that experience with the justices is not predictive. In the case, Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR), the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the law schools.
Staff writer Carrie Johnson and research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.