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For Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, a history of pragmatism over partisanship

The Washington Post's Robert Barnes discusses Solicitor General Elena Kagan's non-judicial background and looks ahead to the confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

By her senior year, friends recall, Kagan was uncertain what direction her career should take. She won a Daniel M. Sachs scholarship -- a fellowship akin to a Rhodes scholarship that Princeton awards one graduating student to study for two years at Oxford. At Oxford's Worcester College, she hung out with students who were "a little less the pre-law people and a little more the political theory people," said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a friend whose education and career intertwined with Kagan's for decades.

At Oxford, she became the coxswain for a women's crew team. Jason Brown, a friend from Princeton, said she relished the role of coordinating the eight rowers. "Here she was leading people who had physical talents beyond hers -- the idea of a leadership role where you are part of a team."

By the time she left Oxford, she had settled on law school as her next step. She was torn between Yale, her father's alma mater, and Harvard. In the end, she headed to Harvard.

Richard Fallon was in his fourth year of teaching at Harvard Law when Kagan arrived in his federal courts class. "Her questions were so penetrating that my knees would wobble," he said.

She made the Harvard Law Review and graduated in 1986 magna cum laude.

From clerk to teacher

Kagan came to Washington as a clerk to Judge Abner J. Mikva, an outspoken liberal on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Even in the midnight-oil world of law clerks, her work ethic stood out, recalled a fellow clerk, Harry Litman. For relief from the legal briefs, Kagan played poker and basketball with other clerks -- and was part of the crowd that made regular trips to City Lights in Dupont Circle for Chinese food and guilty runs to a downtown Popeyes for fried chicken. She went on to become a Supreme Court clerk for Marshall, the civil rights legend, whom she has called "the most important lawyer, I think, of the 20th century." He nicknamed her "Shorty."

After two years at Williams & Connolly, she moved into academia. She joined the University of Chicago faculty as an assistant professor in 1991, at 31. Four years later, she was "an easy case for tenure," Stone recalled.

Kagan "wasn't someone who just wanted to go into academics to play with ideas in a more abstruse way," said Daniel Shaviro, a New York University law professor who knew Kagan at Chicago. "She was interested in real-world institutions and issues." She published articles, including two submissions on the First Amendment, but her written output was limited, colleagues said.

Slaughter, who helped recruit Kagan to Chicago and now is a senior State Department official, said her friend is a scholar of a certain type. "She is much more comfortable examining something and analyzing something given to her, and she'll be brilliant at it, and she will see it from different angles. . . . In many ways, being a judge is a better fit for her than being a scholar, where the emphasis is . . . generating a particular intellectual signature.

"She really is a deep intellectual," Slaughter said. "She is not married. And although she has many friends, the world of books and ideas is her world."

A lawyer's mind

Intellectual that she is, Kagan also has been steeped in the rough-and-tumble world of politics and public policy.

When Mikva, then the White House counsel to Clinton, hired her as an associate counsel in 1995, she helped vet executive orders on welfare reform, child support enforcement and other domestic policy issues.

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