By Lisa Keen | Keen News Service

Elena Kagan

Gay legal activists are applauding President Barack Obama’s second nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court: Solicitor General Elena Kagan. But it could hardly be described as a standing ovation.

Former Clinton White House aide Richard Socarides called Kagan a "brilliant, pragmatic progressive interested in listening to all sides and building coalitions."

Lambda Legal Executive Director Kevin Cathcart called Kagan "a strong position" in opposing the military’s ban on gays but noted that Obama administration has also "taken legal positions on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the so-called ‘Defense of Marriage Act’ with which we strongly disagree."

Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese applauded her selection as fulfilling Obama’s promise to promote "diversity" on the court. If confirmed, Kagan would become only the fourth woman ever named to the court –out of 104 justices in the history of the court.

Kagan is of particular interest to the LGBT community. While serving as dean of Harvard Law School, she took sides with gays against military recruiters because the military would not abide by the school’s non-discrimination policy. That policy prohibited recruiters who discriminated based on sexual orientation.

Kagan clerked for one of the Supreme Court’s staunchest liberals, Thurgood Marshall, and was a research assistant for one of the greatest legal defenders of gay civil rights, Laurence Tribe.

Single and 50, she was also the subject of a CBS News website blog report last month which claimed that, if named to the court, Kagan would be the "first openly gay justice." But Kagan has not publicly identified with any sexual orientation, and the White House moved quickly to say the report was "inaccurate."

The president announced his selection at a press conference Monday morning.

Socarides called Kagan "one of the smartest people I know" and "someone the country will come to like and respect."

"Her thinking is well within the mainstream," said Socarides, and "very much in keeping with Obama’s overallphilosophy …. pretty much a home-runappointment."

Shannon Minter of the National Center for Lesbian Rights called Kagan "well-qualified" and said members of his organization "strongly support increasing the number of women on the court."

Lambda’s Cathcart said he didn’t expect Kagan "to answer questions about how she would rule on specific issues such as these that will come before her." But he said Lambda does "expect that she will respond to questions about her judicial philosophy and her understanding of core constitutional principals of equal protection and privacy that are so crucial to the civil rights of people who face discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and/or HIV status."

Longtime gay legal activist Paula Ettelbrick, an adjunct professor at New York University Law School, said Kagan’s nomination is "most historic" and that "it moves women’s representation on the Court to a more meaningful plurality."

Mainstream news organizations immediately set about assessing her odds for confirmation. MSNBC speculates both conservatives and liberals could criticize her. Commentator-reporter Chuck Todd said conservatives would fault Kagan over her opposition to military recruiters at Harvard. He said liberals could fault her for defending some policies put in place by the administration of President George W. Bush.

In introducing Kagan to the press conference Monday morning, Obama praised Kagan for having sought conservative views to balance liberal views at Harvard. During her confirmation process for Solicitor General last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee received letters in support of Kagan from such well-known conservatives as former Solicitor Generals Charles Fried and Kenneth Starr, and such well-known liberals as Eleanor D. Acheson.

Her confirmation as Solicitor General was opposed, as expected, by some ultra-conservative groups, including Concerned Women for America, who faulted her for opposing military recruiters, as well as Focus on Family and more than a dozen other groups who said she could not be counted on to defend "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell."

Kagan, an attorney, has never served as a judge but is widely respected as a legal scholar.

NCLR’s Minter said, "Because she has not served previously as a judge, it will be important to hear more about her judicial philosophy and whether she has a strong commitment to enforcing constitutionally protected rights and liberties."

Given that she filled out the Senate Judiciary Committee’s lengthy questionnaire just last year, the vetting of her by various senators should go fairly rapidly.

In response to questions from the Judiciary Committee last year, Kagan said she views as "unjust the exclusion of individuals from basic economic, civic, and political opportunities of our society on the basis of race, nationality, sex, religion, and sexual orientation." But she also said she was "fully convinced" she could defend U.S. laws even when they do not reflect her personal views, including the federal law which penalizes universities which ban military recruiters.

Kagan’s questionnaire also indicated that she delivered a welcoming address to introduce panel members at a Harvard University Gay and Lesbian Alumni event in September 2008. And in April 2006, she moderated a panel of the LAMBDA Student Organization concerning the "Relationship between Law Schools and the Military." Such participation is fairly typical of law school deans and her list includes an even greater number of appearances before groups promoting civil rights for black law students.

Senators Orrin Hatch and Jon Kyl, two Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee who voted for Kagan as Solicitor General, issued statements Monday morning saying their vote is not guaranteed for the Supreme Court appointment.

If confirmed, Kagan will become the third woman on the U.S. Supreme Court today and the second unmarried justice. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Obama’s first nominee to the Supreme Court, was married briefly but divorced in 1983.

A press release from HRC applauded Kagan’s "commitment to fairness and equality."

"Specifically, we applaud Elena Kagan’s vocal opposition to the Solomon Amendment and the discriminatory ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ law."

HRC said it would continue examining Kagan’s record on issues that affect the LGBT community.

Kagan’s nomination is being made to fill the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, who announced his retirement last month.

The composition of the Supreme Court is increasing critical to the LGBT civil rights movement. Three important cases seeking equality in marriage rights are winding their ways to the high court and it seems nearly inevitable that the high court will choose to weigh in on at least one, if not all three. The court will also hear a case this fall that will determine whether a virulently anti-gay protest group has a First Amendment right to stage their demonstrations in ways that disrupt private funeral services.

While many nominees that the occasion of the press conference in introduce close members of their family, Kagan noted that her parents had already passed away and said she was "thankful for my brothers and other family and friends" for being there with her.

© 2010 Keen News Service

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