Confirmation hearings began Monday for Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States. Political and legal experts expect Kagan to be confirmed for the high court. But before that can happen, she will have to endure a week of tough questioning by Senate Republicans.
Monday will likely turn out to be the easiest day for Elena Kagan at her confirmation hearings this week.
After listening to lengthy opening statements from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kagan gave her own opening statement and noted the words that are carved in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court building - "Equal Justice Under Law."
"What this commands of judges is evenhandedness and impartiality. What it promises is nothing less than a fair shake for every American," she said.
Kagan also promised to uphold the rule of law if confirmed as a justice and she said the high court has the responsibility to ensure that government does not overstep its proper bounds. Kagan said she would approach each case that comes before the court with an open mind.
"I will work hard and I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly, with commitment to principle and in accordance with the law," she said.
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Even though Kagan's confirmation is expected, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee have vowed to question her closely on her legal and political views, and on her lack of experience as a judge.
"Ms. Kagan has less real legal experience of any nominee in at least 50 years. And it is not just that the nominee has not been a judge. She has barely practiced law and not with the intensity and duration from which I think real legal understanding occurs," said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.
Several Republicans warned Kagan that they will be looking for signs that she is what they describe as an activist judge - someone who will bring her own presumed liberal views to the bench.
This caution came from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
"So I look forward to trying to better understand how you will be able to take political activism, association with liberal causes and park it [i.e., set it aside] when it becomes time to be a judge. That, to me, is your challenge," said Graham.
Democrats have a different view of what constitutes judicial activism on the Supreme Court. New York Democrat Charles Schumer says he believes that the current court leans heavily to the right. He says he is hopeful that Kagan will act as a counterweight and swing the nine-member court toward the center of the political spectrum.
"The rightward shift of the court under Chief Justice [John] Roberts is palpable," he said. "In decision after decision, special interests are winning out over ordinary citizens. In decision after decision, this court bends the law to suit an ideology. Judicial activism now has a new guise - judicial activism to pull the country to the right."
Public opinion surveys show that Americans know less about the Supreme Court than the other two branches of government - the presidency and Congress. Supreme Court nominations offer the public a rare opportunity to shed light on the court and on the person who has been nominated to a lifetime appointment.
"Appointments to the Supreme Court are the most important appointments a president can make because, unlike members of the administration, members of the executive, even members of the independent boards, a judge has life tenure and can only be removed for misbehavior," explains Melvin Urofsky, an expert on Supreme Court history at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Kagan would replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, who has been a leading liberal on the high court since his appointment in 1975. Legal experts do not expect Kagan's appointment to alter the current ideological makeup of the court, which is split among four conservatives, four liberals and one swing justice, Justice Anthony Kennedy.
If confirmed, Kagan would be the third woman on the current court and only the fourth to serve in Supreme Court history.
After the hearings, Kagan's nomination will be voted on by the Judiciary Committee and then by the full Senate. Supporters hope she will be confirmed in time for the beginning of the next Supreme Court term in October.