BY LYNN SWEET AND ABDON M. PALLASCH
WASHINGTON — Elena Kagan, nominated by President Obama Monday for a seat on the Supreme Court, first met him at the University of Chicago Law School, where they were both teaching.
Kagan was at the time a career academic while Obama was at the school part time, just beginning his political career.
Obama on Monday couldn’t recall the details of that day in the 1990s when their paths first crossed at the law school in Hyde Park. Who knew to mark the spot at the law school where a future president met the woman who would be his second Supreme Court appointment?
Obama called Kagan at 8 p.m. Sunday night to tell her he was going to nominate her to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, a Chicago native, on the high court. Monday morning, Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Kagan were in the East Room of the White House to make it official, before an audience full of allies who can help her Senate confirmation.
“While we can’t presume to replace Justice Stevens’ wisdom or experience, I have selected a nominee who I believe embodies that same excellence, independence, integrity and passion for the law, and who can ultimately provide that same kind of leadership on the court: our solicitor general, and my friend, Elena Kagan,” Obama said. He went on to praise Kagan, his solicitor general, for reaching out to conservatives during her tenure as Harvard Law School dean.
Kagan’s Chicago years run from 1991 through 1995. She lived in Lincoln Park in a vintage building at 605 W. Arlington, Apartment 3. After classes, she would “get into her car, turn up the rock ‘n’ roll music loud, and drive home fast. She told me that,” U. of C. Law School Professor David Strauss recalled on Monday.
A popular teacher and an opera lover, Kagan played in faculty-student 16-inch softball games. Kagan was also a star of the faculty trivia team, much to the chagrin of the student team that went up against her.
She got good marks from students in their class reviews. She brought them to lunches and dinners at — among other places — Cafe Ba Ba Reeba at 2024 N. Halsted, the tapas eatery.
“She was an amazing teacher. She was my favorite,” said Carolyn Shapiro, now a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “She was just unbelievably charismatic in the classroom. Former student Jesse Ruiz, now chairman of the state Board of Education, remembers Kagan as “a really good professor, really concerned about teaching.”
Kagan was a regular in one of the long-running U. of C. Law School traditions, the faculty lunch at the Quadrangle Club at 57th and University. Three times a week the club hosts a roundtable of some 15 law school faculty members with one ground rule: the conversation has to be about law or politics.
At those lunch gatherings, Kagan “was a very lively and opinionated person,” recalled former law school dean Geoffrey R. Stone, now the university provost.
Kagan has a fairly thin paper trail, never having been a judge. An article she wrote for the U. of C. Law Review while she taught there is already being flagged as a potential point of contention — not a deal killer — for her Senate confirmation hearings. Earlier in her career, she had been a special counsel for then-Sen. Joe Biden at the Senate Judiciary Committee, during the Ruth Bader Ginsburg confirmation hearings. That experience informed the 1995 law review article she wrote daring senators to ask tough questions of nominees.
(Biden was very involved in the selection process; Kagan breakfasted at his residence April 27.)
During a briefing Monday, Biden chief of staff Ron Klain said he did not think the article would be much of a problem.
“Elena addressed this when she was nominated to be solicitor general,” Klain said. Over time, Kagan now has “a new appreciation and respect for the difficulty of being a nominee.” Klain called Kagan “clearly a legal progressive. She’s got a pragmatic perspective.”
Former federal appellate judge Abner Mikva, whom Kagan clerked for, brought Kagan to the Clinton White House as a deputy general counsel when he was White House counsel. Mikva watched with pride from Chicago as Obama introduced Kagan. He waved off the concerns about her.
“If the president appointed Moses, Muhammad and Jesus Christ all rolled into one, the critics would still come out,” Mikva said. “Unfortunately, the Senate can be so contentious. They remind me of the Harvard Law faculty, but she brought them together.”
Kagan had a bittersweet ending at the U. of C. She left to serve in the Clinton White House, staying four years. Clinton nominated her for a federal appellate spot in Washington, but the nomination stalled. She wanted to return to the U. of C. Law School, but the faculty decided her heart was not in being an academic and did not want her to use the spot to wait out her next Washington appointment.
That was hard for Kagan, but the rejection in Chicago put her on a path that led her to Harvard and eventually to becoming the first female dean there.
Kagan is also a baseball pragmatist. Former U. of C. law professor Al Alschuler, who also taught with Kagan and Obama, said, “The only playoff game I’ve ever been to, she took me to. I about froze to death, but she insisted. She was a very strong White Sox fan while she was in Chicago.”
That might be music to Obama, a die-hard Sox fan. But when introduced Kagan Monday morning, he called her “a die-hard Mets fan serving alongside her new colleague-to-be, Yankees fan Justice [Sonia] Sotomayor — who I believe has ordered a pinstripe robe for the occasion.”
Abdon M. Pallasch reported from Chicago