Fordham Law

Manhattan Renders Its Verdict on Court Pick

Martin Flaherty in The Wall Street Journal, May 11, 2010

Media Source


From the apartment building where she grew up working in Democratic campaigns to the high school where she was a can't-miss star, Elena Kagan's Manhattan basked in the glow of her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

Television trucks and cameras swarmed her childhood building at West End Avenue and 75th Street to hear how Ms. Kagan's mother used to brag over her accomplishments. The selective public school where she graduated in an all-girls class in 1977, proudly displayed a yearbook photo of her in a judge's robe, carrying a gavel.

"You could just tell from the way she was at the time," said Susan Meeker, a retired teacher who taught Ms. Kagan history at Hunter College High School. "She was very good at listening as well as participating, and I think that's a mark of a great leader."

Robin Fried, a psychotherapist who has worked for the past 25 years out of a ground-floor office in the building at 320 West End Ave. where Ms. Kagan had lived, said she "got the chills" when she heard about her nomination. "I'm only sorry her mother didn't live to see this day."

Ms. Fried said that Ms. Kagan's mother, Gloria, would "kvell," a Yiddish word that means rejoice, over her daughter's accomplishments. When the younger Ms. Kagan was named dean of Harvard Law School, her mother tacked a news article about the appointment on the lobby's bulletin board.

Friends say that growing up, Ms. Kagan was very much a product of the Upper West Side, participating in the progressive issues the neighborhood is famous for championing.

Her late father Robert was a former housing lawyer who focused on tenants' rights and was chairman of Community Board 7. His old law firm, which he helped found, still bears his name: Kagan Lubic Lepper Lewis Gold & Colbert.

"I remember clearly sitting in her living room at a young age of 20 [thinking] how smart she was," said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who came across Ms. Kagan as they worked on one of the campaigns of Manhattan Democrat Elizabeth Holtzman.

Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham Law School and Upper West Side resident, graduated from Princeton University with Ms. Kagan. He said it would be tempting for some to try to pigeonhole Ms. Kagan because of where she came from, but her work as dean of Harvard Law School and U.S. Solicitor General doesn't exactly fit the stereotype of an Upper West Side attorney.

"It's not like she's an old left-wing beret-wearing Gauloises-smoking Upper West Side liberal lawyer," said Mr. Flaherty. "She's been very careful and moderate throughout her entire career."

Ms. Kagan attended the public schools associated with Hunter College. Her mother was a teacher at Hunter Elementary, and one brother, Irving, currently teaches Hunter High.

Throughout her school years classmates recall Ms. Kagan standing out for her intelligence even at Hunter College Elementary School.

President Obama nominated Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Upon her nomination ceremony, she said she was "honored and humbled" by her nomination. Ashby Jones and Peter Landers discuss.

One photo in a Hunter High yearbook shows Ms. Kagan in wire-rimmed glasses with a quotation she picked out from former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter: "Government is itself an art, one of the subtlest of arts."

Amy Solas, who was in Ms. Kagan's graduating class, said Ms. Kagan, who was student-body president, even as a teen possessed a "quiet confidence."

"I don't think Elena has changed that much," said Ms. Solas who noted that the popular Ms. Kagan excelled at social studies. "She had a very secure sense. She was very comfortable with herself at a young age."

Ms. Meeker, the former history teacher, called Ms. Kagan a "brilliant" student, saying she was "quite low-key. Not a giggly, bubbly teenager but very bright and very articulate."

"The girls were very articulate and very politically active and certainly Elena was that," she said.

That Ms. Kagan was nominated for the nation's highest court is not surprising to Alexis Gray, 49 years old, a friend and former classmate.

"We always knew she was going to be at the top of something," Ms. Gray said. "Even though she had this intense intellect…she was always funny. You could never call her a nerd."

If Ms. Kagan ends up on the high court, she'll share something in common with the other two women on the panel: all are natives of New York City.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 77, was born in Brooklyn. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 55, the court's only Hispanic justice, spent part of her childhood in public housing in the Bronx. Add to that Justice Antonin Scalia, who was born in New Jersey but grew up in Queens, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was crowing.

"Well, the only thing I found disappointing is the pressure is now on me to talk to the president and make sure that the next appointee after her comes from Staten Island," he joked.

—Chris Herring and Peter Lattman contributed to this article.