Justice Kagan's first year on the bench

Elena Kagan as Dean of Harvard Law. Justice Elena Kagan is the fourth woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States.

Photo by Doc Searls.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is inarguably a Jewess with attitude – not to mention clout and intelligence. Justice Kagan, who was sworn into office on August 7, 2010, has just wrapped up her first year as an Associate Justice on the country’s highest court, and what a year it’s been. In its 1900-word assessment of Justice Kagan’s inaugural year, The Harvard Crimson calls her the “judge with chutzpah,” describing her left-leaning votes, collegial writing style, and communicative work style. The court’s newest member (and third Jewish justice) received broad support during the nomination process, with Jewish organizations trumpeting her fitness for the position and conservative members of Congress calling her an acceptably moderate voice.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Kagan to serve as Solicitor General, a job that led her to argue a handful of cases in front of the Supreme Court. That experience, she has said, gave her a sense of how to persuade nine justices with differing opinions to rule in her favor. “Now my job is to convince eight Supreme Court justices,” she jokes.

As Justice Kagan begins year two on the high court, let’s take a look at some of the key cases that comprised her first year on the bench:

  • Justuce Kagan has said that one of her most difficult rulings was on the constitutionality of a California law that would have banned the sale of violent video games to minors. “You could see why the government would have wanted to do this and you can see the kind of danger it was worried about, the kind of effects these extremely violent video games have on young people.” When she was unable to reconcile the case with First Amendment precedence and the constitutional right to free speech, Justice Kagan cast a vote to invalidate the California law; ultimately, the court voted 7-2 in favor of striking down the law.
  • In an 8-1 vote, with only Justice Samuel Alito dissenting, the court ruled in Snyder v. Phelps that the right to free speech protects the extremist (and extremely unpopular) Westboro Baptist Church’s right to protest at military funerals. The controversial case drew attention not only because of the general public’s overwhelming dislike of Westboro Baptist Church but also for Justice Kagan’s keenly demonstrated understanding of the First Amendment.
  • All nine justices ruled the same way in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, the largest sex discrimination case in the country’s history. The 9-0 ruling favored Wal-Mart in blocking as class-action lawsuit from female employees, ruling that the women who brought the case against the corporate giant failed to prove that they had all suffered from a company policy of discrimination. Had Wal-Mart lost the case, it might’ve owed billions of dollars to as many as $1.5 employees who claimed bias in both pay and promotions. Despite the final vote, oral arguments in advance of the cased demonstrated that Justice Kagan and fellow female justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in particular, seemed to empathize with the female plaintiffs’ claims of sex discrimination.

Because of her former responsibilities as Solicitor General, Justice Kagan recused herself from a number of cases in which she may have had a conflict of interest, meaning that the 24 cases she ruled on this year may not provide an accurate reflection of the justice’s overall views or a glimpse into what the future may hold. Still, the numbers are there: Kagan has agreed with her fellow justices only 69% of the time, making her the second-most dissenting justice on the court, behind Justice Sonia Sotomayor; the two female justices vote alike 94% of the time. By comparison, the notably conservative Chief Justice John Roberts has agreed with the majority 90% of the time, indicating that justices Kagan and Sotomayor are among the most liberal on the bench.

Though video cameras and court coverage are currently prohibited during Supreme Court proceedings, Kagan has said she is in favor of permitting them under certain circumstances as a means of introducing the public to the court’s work. “If everybody could see this it would make them feel so good about this branch of government and how it operates,” she said last week. “Reading about it is not the same experience.”

Want to learn more about Justice Kagan’s first year on the court? In its “Supreme Court Round-Up,” The Washington Post breaks it down for you using infographics and case summaries that outline exactly how Kagan and the other justices voted on key cases – and why.

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It's really awesome that there are three Jews on the bench now, considering there have been only eight total in the past 250 years. Even more ironic is that there are three women on the bench now, considering there have only been four total in the past 250 years. And yet even more ironic is that 2/3 women currently on the bench are Jewish. lol.

How to cite this page

Bigam, Kate. "Justice Kagan's first year on the bench." 11 August 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on June 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/justice-kagans-first-year-on-the-bench>.

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