A few highlights from the questioning since my last blogpost:
* In addition to backing away from President Obama’s empathy standard, Elena Kagan, under questioning by Senator Grassley, backs away from her “judicial hero” Aharon Barak, saying that she does not share his judicial philosophy, which involves judges making policy decisions and affirmatively shaping society. This is an important concession. Grassley also elicits the statement that only the president and Congress should worry about American influence in the world.
* The wily Arlen Specter, in his last Supreme Court hearing (unless Justice Ginsburg retires over the summer), treats his questioning as a prosecutor would. Technical questions and cutting off responses when Kagan begins to expound on the current state of the law, when what he really wants to know is what she thinks about the law. Unfortunately, Specter accepts Kagan’s statements that she respects Congress but does not press her right when the next question would demand an actual opinion on Citizens United or on Morrison (an important case in which the Court struck down the Violence Against Women Act as beyond Congress’s powers to regulate interstate commerce). Kagan admits that Citizens United was a “jolt to the system” because states had relied on the pre-existing campaign finance regime. Unfortunately, this is again an empirical statement rather than a normative one.
* Kagan does express a firm opinion in favor of televising Supreme Court proceedings (this is one of Specter’s bugaboos). “I guess I’ll have to have my hair done more often,” she says.
* Lindsey Graham is definitely worth the price of admission. First he prompts Kagan to admit that “my political views are generally progressive” after she declined to characterize herself in anyway in response to previous senators’ queries. Then he gets her to endorse her classmate Miguel Estrada for the Supreme Court (which may be of interest to
President General Petraeus, who testified before another Senate committee today). Finally, in questioning regarding the Christmas Day bomber, he provokes an ethnic love-in after his question about where Kagan was on Christmas Day elicits the response, “well, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” As he did with Sotomayor, Graham makes clear that he is likely to disagree with many of Kagan’s judicial decisions, but will vote for her regardless.
* John Cornyn is the first senator to push the size and scope of government as a major line of questioning. He asks her one of my pet questions: What limits are there on government?” Kagan replies by reciting the Commerce Clause standards set forth in existing precedent, that Congress cannot touch activity that is not economic or that is left traditionally to state power. Well, that’s progress, but of course it raises the question of whether forcing someone to buy health insurance involves regulating economic activity and whether health care regulation is a traditional state responsibility.
* Tom Coburn picks up where Cornyn left off, proposing a hypothetical bill requiring everyone to eat three fruits and three vegetables per day. Kagan considers that a “dumb law” but says that “courts would be wrong to strike down laws simply because they are senseless.” Well, ok, but is that particular senseless law unconstitutional? Kagan seems pained (in real psychic discomfort) but Coburn lets her off the hook in reading from the Federalist Papers—a nice edition that should make for a good picture in the Oklahoma papers—and talking about the explosive growth of government. Kagan shrugs off this discursion by citing Marbury v. Madison—“the role of the courts is to say what the law is”—and concluding that deficits aren’t a problem courts can resolve, at which point Coburn’s time runs out. We will revisit this issue.
In short, Kagan is without doubt smarter, wittier, and more collegial than Sonia Sotomayor. Unfortunately, that means she is likely to be more dangerous, a true “liberal Scalia.” We now know that two of the catchphrases from these hearings will be that “I’m not going to grade cases”—why not?—and that everything the Court has ever decided is “well-settled law.” In my mind, Kagan has not yet met the burden of persuasion regarding constitutional limits on government, which is my focus at these hearings. I would look for Senators Sessions, Cornyn, and Coburn to hit this issue hard on the next go-around.
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Editor's note: a case name has been corrected in this updated piece.