Kagan brings some ‘firsts’ to high court

Eventual influence of new U.S. Supreme Court justice may be profound, WUSTL expert says

The U.S. Senate confirmation of one justice — Elena Kagan — will immediately bring multiple demographic changes to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Senate’s Aug. 5 approval of her nomination — a 63-37 vote — makes Kagan, 50, the youngest justice currently on the high court. She is replacing the oldest member, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, 90.


Kagan is the only present U.S. Supreme Court justice to have never served as a judge. The fact that she is a woman creates yet another “first” for the high court, says Gregory Magarian, JD, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.

“We now have three female justices for the first time — Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan — and they all appear to have roughly compatible judicial philosophies,” Magarian says. “We may see a sharper gender-based difference in perspective in some important cases.”

Learning curve ahead

Kagan and Stevens are like-minded liberals in regard to many substantive issues. But Kagan’s relative youth and inexperience likely will mean a gradual filling of Stevens’ big judicial shoes.

“Justice Stevens was a leader on the court by seniority,” Magarian says. “Justice Kagan will have to climb the learning curve, while Justices Ginsburg and/or Breyer will lead the court’s liberal wing.”

Kagan’s appointment doesn’t appear to alter the liberal-conservative head count of the high court. But her global view and agile mind will help put her unique stamp on the court, Magarian says.

“Over time, Justice Kagan’s unique range of experiences may exert a strong influence over the court’s direction,” Magarian says,

Kagan is President Barack Obama’s second U.S. Supreme Court appointment. She was preceded by Sonya Sotomayor, who was confirmed in August 2009.

In July, the Senate Judiciary Committee propelled Kagan over her first procedural hurdle by approving her nomination, as was expected, with a 13-to-6-vote. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) joined the committee’s 12 Democrats in voting for her approval.

Magarian, who clerked on the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Stevens, has a primary focus on constitutional law in his research and teaching.

For interviews, please contact Nancy Fowler Larson at Nancy_Larson@aismail.wustl.edu until Jessica Martin returns September 7, 2010.

Expert contact information: Greg Magarian, (314) 935-3394, GPMagarian@wulaw.wustl.edu