At hearings, Elena Kagan charmed her critics -- and seemed to enjoy herself

The Senate Judiciary Committee continues confirmation hearings for Kagan, who pledged in prepared remarks to support judicial restraint and a "modest" role for the high court.
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2010

By the end of 17 hours of senatorial grilling, lecturing and badgering, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan had revealed at least one passion: She loves this stuff.

Put the woman in front of some stern interrogators who make her explain a dozen times why Harvard Law School doesn't require constitutional law in the very first year, and she comes alive.

Over two days at the microphone, Kagan gave the impression that there was no place she would rather be than seeking to address all questions of the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. She assured even the openly hostile Republican members that she knows they are men of "good faith." And when the Democrats grumbled about the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., she enthusiastically responded that he, too, certainly is a man of "good faith."

(Photos of Kagan charming her critics at her confirmation hearings)

She was expansive on the question of whether a judge is an umpire (in some ways), a robot (never), an ideologue (so wrong) or an empath (certainly not).

Original intent. Commerce clause. Forced arbitration. She took them all on, thoughtfully and pleasantly turning the most abstruse legal concepts into real English. She talked of needing to have "a little play in the joints" when comparing legal principles, offering up an "oh, thanks but no thanks" in explaining another and refusing to "count her chickens" before hatching when Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) tried, without success, to have her speculate on how she might examine something as a Supreme Court justice. When she needed to play for time in constructing an answer, instead of fidgeting or fumbling, Kagan frequently said "gosh." When she needed to deflect, she made quick jokes.

Kagan displayed such relish and expertise at the hearing table that she could hire herself out as a stunt witness and work five days a week on Capitol Hill. But she seems a cinch to take her place on the bench as the fourth female justice in the court's history.

Her harshest critics Tuesday were beaming at her Wednesday. "I know this hasn't been the most pleasant experience for you," said Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.).

She nearly interrupted him to report with evident pleasure: "I think it's been terrific, that everybody has been very fair and very considerate, and I hope you found it informative. I found it somewhat wearying, but actually a great moment in my life."

A day earlier Coburn seemed to wound Kagan slightly when he scolded: "I would not want to be a Supreme Court justice with you. I think I'd get run over!" The corners of her mouth slumped just a bit.

Now, he congratulated her for her performance and said, "You . . . light up the room."

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who came close in interviews Tuesday to accusing the former Harvard Law School dean of lying in describing her handling of military recruiting on campus, seemed all but ready to swear her in by Wednesday evening.

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