WASHINGTON – Elena Kagan, nicknamed "Shorty" by a liberal mentor before becoming a legal giant, will introduce herself to the nation next week as the widely anticipated next member of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kagan is certain to face a Republican grilling when her Senate confirmation hearing begins on Monday, with critics questioning if she's driven more by politics than law and backers calling her a perfect fit for the high court.
Barring any unforeseen bombshells, the former Harvard law school dean, who has served in the last two Democratic administrations, will likely win approval with bipartisan support.
While President Barack Obama has faced a Republican wall of opposition much of this election year, at least a few members of the opposition party are expected to join Democrats to confirm his nomination of Kagan, 50, to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, the court's leading liberal.
"The president is extraordinarily proud of this nominee and, I bet, the reasons for that will be very apparent in these hearings," said senior Obama adviser David Axelrod.
While Kagan has drawn praise from Democrats and Republicans in the legal world, the public seems less than impressed, at least so far, with the nominee.
Less than half of Americans, 44 percent, say they want to see Kagan confirmed, down 10 points from a month ago, according to a recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll. The percent who say they are uncertain about Kagan grew to 17 from 11.
Andy Pincus, an experienced Supreme Court litigator and a member of the faculty at Yale Law School, attributes such numbers to the fact that Americans have been focused on other matters in recent months, particularly the Gulf oil spill.
"Those who watch the hearing are going to find out she's a smart person with a distinguished career in law who will approach legal questions with an open mind," Pincus said.
If confirmed, Kagan would be Obama's second high-court appointee, following Sonia Sotomayor, who won Senate confirmation last year with the help of nine Republicans in a 68-31 vote.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, who will preside over Kagan's anticipated five-day hearing, said the nationally broadcast proceeding may be anti-climatic.
"Her qualifications will quickly become self-evident," said Leahy.
CONFIRMATION, NOT CORONATION
Still, Leahy said, some Republicans are certain to try to rough up Kagan, perhaps simply to placate members of their increasingly conservative base.
Senator Jeff Sessions, the committee's top Republican, promised to challenge Kagan, who has received the American Bar Association's top rating for the Supreme Court.
"This is not a coronation. It's a confirmation to what may be a 30- or 40-year life career on the federal bench on the United States Supreme Court," Sessions said. "We have a nominee that has a very liberal background."
Kagan has served the past year as Obama's U.S. solicitor general, a post that has had her represent the U.S. government in cases before court she now seeks to join.
In a conference call with reporters last week, Sessions said it was unclear what, if any, impact the Kagan nomination would have on November elections, when control of the Senate and House of Representatives will be up for grabs.
But Sessions noted that Republican President George W. Bush received some of his "loudest roars of approval" while campaigning when he vowed to appoint judges "who understand that their role is to follow the law, not make the law."
"I think the American people understand that and care about that," said Sessions, who, like other Republicans, has suggested Kagan may have a political agenda.
Born in New York and the daughter of a lawyer who was a fair-housing advocate, Kagan graduated from Princeton University in 1981 and received her law degree from Harvard.
In 1988, she became a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. A liberal icon, Marshall nicknamed the diminutive Kagan "Shorty."
Republican critics have pounced on memos Kagan wrote while working as Marshall's clerk, saying they showed evidence of "a leftist philosophy."
During her Senate confirmation hearing last year to become solicitor general, Kagan downplayed the memos.
She said Marshall instructed his clerks to reflect his thinking in recommending what cases the court should consider.
"I was a 27-year-old pipsqueak, and I was working for an 80-year-old giant in the law and a person who, let us be frank, had very strong jurisprudential and legal views," Kagan said.
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