Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan begin Monday in Washington. Kagan is President Barack Obama's choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the high court's leading liberal thinker.
The nine Supreme Court justices are appointed for life after confirmation by the Senate. But before that can happen, nominees must endure a week's worth of confirmation hearings by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where they are grilled on their views of the law and their personal backgrounds.
President Obama's second pick for the Supreme Court is Elena Kagan, who he sees as a worthy successor to the man stepping down from the high court, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.
"While we can't presume to replace Justice Stevens' wisdom or experience, I have selected a nominee who I believe embodies that same excellence, independence, integrity and passion for the law," he said.
Stevens is the longest serving member of the current court, having been appointed by President Gerald Ford in 1975. And even though Stevens was appointed by a Republican president, he turned out to be the leader of the court's liberal faction.
Elena Kagan has been serving as the Obama administration's solicitor general, who argues the administration's point of view in cases that go before the Supreme Court.
"I have felt blessed to represent the United States before the Supreme Court, to walk into the highest court in this country when it is deciding its most important cases, cases that have an impact on so many people's lives," said Kagan.
Unlike the other members of the current high court, Kagan has no experience as a judge. However, throughout U.S. history, a number of justices ascended to the high court without having served as judges.
Republicans are expected to ask a lot of questions about her legal views. But the modern history of confirmation hearings is that nominees usually go to great lengths to avoid answering questions about tough issues like abortion, affirmative action and gay marriage.
"I think we would like to know in a real honest sense whether her philosophy of law is so broad in interpretation of the Constitution that you are not faithful to the Constitution and laws," said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans say they will ask Kagan about her tenure as dean of Harvard University Law School in Massachusetts, and in particular her decision to bar military recruiters on campus because of the U.S. military policy of barring gays from openly serving in the armed forces.
Most legal and political experts expect Elena Kagan will be confirmed to the high court since Democrats control 59 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats.
But the hearings can be unpredictable and offer lawmakers and citizens the only chance to screen a nominee prior to a lifetime appointment.
"We believe in the independent life tenure of judges. It is an extraordinary aspect of our system to have independent life tenure," said Walter Dellinger, who served for a time as the U.S. Solicitor General under President Bill Clinton. "Nomination and confirmation is the democratic moment that precedes the independent life tenure of a judge."
A recent Associated Press-GfK poll found that 43 percent of those asked support Kagan's confirmation while 26 percent oppose her. But 63 percent said they had not heard enough about her to form an opinion.
That will be an important backdrop to the hearings, says legal expert Robert Alt of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
"We don't know as much about her," he said. "We don't know as much about how it is that she approaches the law, which is ultimately the big question that everyone wants to know the answer to."
"First of all, she has never been a judge and she doesn't have a huge track record of writings as an academic. And so senators don't have as much to go on to get a feel for what kind of justice she would be," said Rachel Brand, an attorney and a former Justice Department official who used to prepare judicial nominees for the confirmation process under President George W. Bush.
Those who know Kagan emphasize her ability to work well with others and listen to different points of view, skills that can come in handy when serving on the nine-member Supreme Court.
"When you take the court you are basically signing on to a professional family relationship with eight other justices and the ability to listen well and to be patient and to be, you know, a true colleague and trying to find common ground are, I would think, some of the paramount skills you would hope for in a Supreme Court justice, said Seth Waxman who served as solicitor general during the Clinton administration.
The current court is split with four justices generally on the conservative side of the spectrum, four often on the liberal side and one, Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered the swing justice. Kennedy often votes with the four conservatives, meaning the court issues a lot of five to four decisions. If confirmed, Kagan is not expected to alter that balance.
President Obama wants Kagan confirmed so that she can take her seat in October when the next Supreme Court term begins. Kagan would become the third woman on the current court, joining Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined the court just last year.