Nearly 1,000 members of the New York State Bar Association honored United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan, who shared fascinating insights about Supreme Court deliberations, her presence on social media and her relationship with the other members of the court at a gala dinner in New York City.
The event was held Thursday, Jan. 30 at the American Museum of Natural History, which Kagan said was just five blocks away from where she grew up. She said she visited the museum often with her brother.
“It feels like a homecoming so thank you very much for inviting me home,” said Kagan.
Kagan, who said she felt as though she just won at the Olympics, was awarded the Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed by NYSBA. The Gold Medal is awarded each year to a lawyer whose qualifications include outstanding legal accomplishments, an active interest in and positive influence upon the profession, and constructive contributions in civic and community matters.
Rather than simply give an acceptance speech, Kagan chose to have a half-hour long question and answer session with her 1986 Harvard Law School classmate, Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John’s University School of Law.
Kagan was first asked about the challenges associated with being gender firsts – she was the first female solicitor general of the United States and the first female dean at Harvard Law School. She gave all the credit to those who paved the way before her – Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, who attended the dinner.
She said they were the ones in law school classes with about 10 females, whereas it was “a different world” by the time she and Justice Sonia Sotomayor left law school and classes were around 40 percent female.
In 1987, Kagan clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall. She returned to the court after her nomination to the Supreme Court in 2010. She described it as a “time capsule” as staff there still remembered her from 23 years earlier and much of the processes hadn’t changed. For instance, they still manually hand out paper memos to each other.
“People don’t really do this anymore,” joked Kagan. “I’m making fun of it, but people don’t change what works I guess.”
Through the conversation, the audience was able to see a side of Kagan they wouldn’t ordinarily see and get to connect with Kagan’s personality. Fun fact – she never uses Facebook but is a self-admitted “lurker” on Twitter who uses a different name and never tweets as herself.
In particular detail, Kagan described the time she went hunting with Justice Antonin Scalia.
When going through the confirmation process to become a justice, Kagan made 82 office visits with lawmakers, one of them was a senator from Idaho. Hunting was important to the senator, who had concerns she wouldn’t understand his constituents. She promised that if she gets confirmed she’ll ask Scalia to take her hunting.
When she told Scalia the story after joining the bench, “he laughed and laughed and laughed.” From there she went to his gun club, learned to shoot and eventually went hunting with him.
“I did a lot of fun things with Justice Scalia, I miss it and miss him,” Kagan said.
Kagan also noted she’s been to a hockey game with Chief Justice John Roberts and to the opera with Justice Ginsburg.
Behind the Black box
She provided further insight into the justices’ work in the “black box” where they discuss their cases. She said the justices, despite their disagreements, are always acting in good faith and they have “a ton of respect for each other.”
She said they go around the room and everyone speaks once before someone else can speak a second time. From there, sometimes it’s a quick vote count, other times it’s a “very engaged back and forth.”
“I continue to think that, if people could see it, they would be really proud of the institution, that the institution works really well, that people engage with each other on a very high plane, that there is really good and substantive conversation, that there is never voices raised, there’s never any anger,” Kagan said. “People are trying to convince other people, and that’s how a court should work.”
Back to the future
Kagan is the tenth Supreme Court justice to receive NYSBA’s Gold Medal award. NYSBA has deep ties to the U.S. Supreme Court as an institution. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes was the State Bar’s 29th President from 1917 to 1918 and Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson served as a vice president in 1932.
Other high court recipients of the Gold Medal include: Sandra Day O’Connor (2008), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1995), William J. Brennan, Jr. (1993), Lewis F. Powell, Jr. (1989), Potter Stewart (1984), Thurgood Marshall (1976), John Marshall Harlan (1966), Felix Frankfurter (1961) and Robert H. Jackson (1954).
Also at the gala dinner, NYSBA honored the judges of the New York Court of Appeals and a large group of current and former judges were in attendance. Other attendees included state Attorney General Letitia James and former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Chief Judge Janet DiFiore provided remarks and NYSBA President Hank Greenberg, who described Kagan as a “born judge” and “consensus builder,” introduced Kagan.
NYSBA went back to the future with the return of the gala dinner, which had been an annual NYSBA tradition since 1877 but was discontinued in 1995. The gala dinner, part of NYSBA’s Annual Meeting in New York City Jan. 27 through 31 was a rousing success and the grand tradition may once again be here to stay.