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Supreme Court Pick Kagan Expects Rigorous Confirmation Hearings

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President Barack Obama made his second pick for the U.S. Supreme Court Monday, nominating Elena Kagan to take the place of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.  Kagan must first go through Senate confirmation hearings before she can ascend to the high court, and at the moment most political and legal analysts are predicting she will be confirmed.  

If confirmed, Elena Kagan would take the seat of retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, a leader of the Supreme Court's liberal-leaning minority that is often on the losing end of five to four decisions.

In nominating Kagan, President Obama described her as a trailblazer for women and someone who will be a consensus-builder on the high court in the style of the man she will replace, Justice Stevens.

"I have selected a nominee who I believe embodies that same excellence, independence, integrity and passion for the law," said President Obama.

Kagan has extensive experience in the law and government but unlike the other current Supreme Court justices, she has no experience as a judge.

Her current job is Solicitor General, which means she argues cases before the Supreme Court on behalf of the U.S. government.  Kagan spoke about that when she was introduced at the White House.

"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 Elena Kagan.

If confirmed, Kagan would become the third woman on the current court.  She would also be the youngest justice on the court at the age of 50 and presumably would serve for a long time since Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.

Before she can take her place on the nine-member court, Kagan will have to go through Senate confirmation hearings.

Legal scholars generally consider Kagan a moderate nominee, and political experts say that should help her in the confirmation process where Democrats control 59 of the 100 votes in the Senate.

The confirmation hearings will be held by the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over by committee chairman and Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"The decisions made at our highest court affect all 300 million Americans," said Senator Leahy. "We hundred Americans [in the Senate] have a duty to the other 300 million to make a wise decision.  Our Constitution deserves a civil and thoughtful debate on this nomination, and then all 100 senators stand up and vote yes or no."

Republicans are promising to be tough and thorough with Kagan at the hearings and will ask about her lack of judicial experience as well as her tenure as the dean of Harvard University Law School.  Kagan opposed on-campus military recruiting at Harvard because of the U.S. military's policy of barring gays from openly serving in the armed forces, known as the 'Don't ask, don't tell' policy.

Conservative legal groups are urging Republicans to ask tough questions during the confirmation process.

Jordan Sekulow is with the American Center for Law and Justice:

"President Obama has a large majority in the U.S. Senate, 59 Democrats," said Jordan Sekulow. "[We know that] Elections have consequences, even as a conservative organization.  What we are calling for is for the Senate to ask tough questions to Elena Kagan to find out more about her judicial philosophy because there just isn't much there."

Republicans acknowledge that Kagan has a formidable intellect and that despite her lack of experience as a judge, there seems to be little appetite as yet to try to block her appointment through parliamentary tactics in the Senate.

Tom Goldstein is a lawyer who has argued before the Supreme Court and is the founder of Scotusblog, which offers analysis of the court and the justices.  He spoke on NBC's Today program.

"She is a very polished and really, really smart person," said Tom Goldstein. "Everybody agrees with that.  So I think that the hearing will go relatively smoothly.  There isn't anything on the horizon that seems to indicate it will blow up."

Senator Leahy argues that plenty of past Supreme Court nominees were thin on judicial experience, including William Rehnquist.  Rehnquist was nominated to the high court by President Richard Nixon in 1972 and eventually rose to the position of Chief Justice.

In any Supreme Court nomination, the potential for a political fight is always there.  That did not arise in the case of Justice Sonja Sotomayor, President Obama's first nominee who was appointed to the high court last year.

Veteran lobbyist and political insider Tom Korologos has extensive experience in helping Republican presidents win confirmation for Supreme Court nominees.  Korologos says presidents historically had an easy time winning confirmation for Supreme Court picks, but all that has changed in the modern political era.

"In the early days, nominees got approved the same day they got named," said Tom Korologos. "And it has now become very contentious.  It is a function of this town in which we live.  The town has gotten very partisan."

Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies in the Senate hope to have Kagan confirmed as the next justice within the next few months so that she can take her seat on the court in time for the beginning of the next Supreme Court session in October.

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