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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2010

Court nominee assures senators of her openmindedness


WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan defended herself yesterday against Republican charges she's not fit to be a justice as she met for the first time with senators who hold the key to her confirmation.

Mostly mum in public as she made the rounds on Capitol Hill, Ms. Kagan sought during a series of private meetings to beat back GOP suggestions that she would be a liberal rubber stamp for President Obama, who nominated her Monday to succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

"She's been politically active throughout her life, she's identified with the American liberal position, she clerked for two activist judges," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the top Republican on the Judiciary panel that will hold hearings on the Kagan nomination.

Senator Sessions said he asked Ms. Kagan during a lengthy meeting whether she understood she might be called upon as a justice to issue rulings that might disappoint her "fans and supporters." The 50-year-old solicitor general replied "that she would be faithful to the law," Senator Sessions said, "but of course every nominee says that. Some of our most activist judges have said that."

The exchange came on a day when senators in both parties promised a fair confirmation process for Ms. Kagan and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) pledged as he welcomed her to the Capitol to make it "as smooth as possible." Barring a surprise, Ms. Kagan is likely to be confirmed this summer by a Senate in which Democrats have more than enough votes to prevail and Republicans are showing little appetite for a Supreme Court showdown.

Still, the debate is virtually certain to become a forum for the two parties to battle over the direction of the court and issues from abortion to political speech.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said that Ms. Kagan must prove that her current post on President Obama's team wouldn't skew her rulings to favor his policies.

"Americans want to know that Ms. Kagan will be independent, that she won't prejudge cases based on her personal opinions, that she'll treat every one equally, as the judicial oath requires," Senator McConnell said.

Senator Sessions pressed Ms. Kagan during their meeting about her decision to bar military recruiters from Harvard's campus because she disagreed with the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for gay soldiers. Senator Sessions called that "a big mistake."

Senator Sessions also said he asked Ms. Kagan about what he called her "thin" experience, having never been a judge or spent much time as a litigator, and she responded that "she felt she had the experience to do the job," he said.

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