We’re guessing there’s probably a lot you don’t know about Elena Kagan, arguably one of the least flashy justices on the famously un-flashy Supreme Court. But as long as everyone is still talking about the judicial branch of government (which, considering some of their more controversial rulings since Amy Coney Barrett took the bench, will probably be for some time), we think we should all learn a bit more about her.
Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court by Barack Obama way back in 2010, replacing Justice John Paul Stevens, per USA Today. She was only 50 years old at the time, making her then the youngest justice on the bench, as well as the third woman justice — the first time three women had ever served on the Supreme Court simultaneously. She didn’t have a name as a famous feminist trailblazer like Ruth Bader Ginsburg or a reputation for controversy like Amy Coney Barrett or Brett Kavanaugh. So who is she? Read on.
Elena Kagan rereads Pride and Prejudice every year
While she was relatively unknown when she first took the bench, if you do enough digging, you’ll find plenty of fun facts about Elena Kagan’s background and personality. Like the fact that she’s a literature lover who makes a point to set aside some time to read the Jane Austen classic “Pride and Prejudice” every year, according to a profile in The New York Times. Being a Supreme Court justice and all, there may be a lot of things about Kagan’s biography that are not exactly relatable, but a fondness for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy is something we can all understand, right?
Kagan rarely gives personal interviews, so we don’t know whether she likes any of the movie adaptations and, if so, if she prefers the BBC’s Masterpiece miniseries with Colin Firth from 1995 or the 2005 Keira Knightley film version. However, we do know her to be a famous institutionalist with a penchant for the rules, so if we had to hazard a guess? We vote Colin Firth.
Elena Kagan drank her feelings after one political loss in college
You may think of Supreme Court justices as stodgy old fogies which, let’s be honest, is largely true. But even all-powerful judges can be human, too. This is something Elena Kagan demonstrated in an opinion essay she wrote for her college newspaper in her senior year at Princeton. Via The Washington Post, Kagan admitted in the piece that following a political upset, she processed the results by getting drunk and bawling her eyes out.
Kagan had been working tirelessly as a campaign press assistant for Brooklyn Representative Elizabeth Holtzman during her 1980 campaign for Senate, and she was crushed when Holtzman lost to Alphonse D’Amato. Kagan shared, per The Washington Post, that she was starting to believe “there was no longer any place for the ideals we held.” Kagan also wrote in the essay, “I wonder how all this could possibly have happened and where on earth I’ll be able to get a job next year.” If that isn’t something every single Millennial and Zoomer can relate to then we don’t know what is.
Decades later, it sounds like the mentor’s thrilled with her mentee. Speaking with NBC4 in 2010, Holtzman said of Kagan: “I’m very proud of Elena. She is a brilliant woman who cares about the world around her.”
Elena Kagan first semester at Harvard didn't go perfectly
It’s no surprise that Elena Kagan was a pretty good student at Princeton and at Harvard Law School. And by “pretty good” we actually mean “amazingly good.” What is surprising is that she wasn’t always a straight A student. According to The New York Times, her first semester at Harvard, Kagan received the worst grades of her law school career. These grades were, drumroll…
One B and one B-minus.
Okay, so Justice Kagan didn’t exactly bomb her first semester at the prestigious Ivy League university, but she didn’t ace it either. And we think it sends a pretty cool message that she can underperform her own expectations once, and then bounce back to become a Supreme Court justice in the end. Jeffrey Toobin, who was in Kagan’s study group at the time, told The New York Times, “She was definitely upset about this torts grade — there was no doubt about it.” He added, “I remember saying to her that in the larger scheme of things it will not loom very large, and I would say history has vindicated me on that matter.” We should say so.
When Elena Kagan was nominated she was the baby of the bench
Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, so it’s a pretty sweet gig if you can get it. Even better if you are nominated to the bench while you’re still relatively young, because this means about 30 years of total job security. Nice. But Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett weren’t the only (relative) youngins recently appointed to a lifetime on the bench — Elena Kagan was only 50 years old when President Barack Obama nominated her for the Supreme Court in 2010. At the time, she was the youngest justice — though also the least experienced, per Oyez.
But after Kavanaugh and Coney Barrett were appointed, Kagan was no longer the baby of the Supreme Court. (When Barrett was appointed at age 48, she was the youngest to be confirmed since Clarence Thomas was at age 43, according to U.S. News.) But if Kagan is anything like the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, we may be seeing her for at least another couple of decades.
For years, Elena Kagan was known as a moderate
Elena Kagan may be a card-carrying member of Team Liberals when it comes to the Supreme Court justices and their ideological makeup, but that doesn’t mean she’s as lefty as you might think. In fact, when she was first nominated as a justice, Kagan was best known as a staunch moderate.
“She’s a pragmatist, kind of in the mode of the president who appointed her. She’s good at making deals with conservatives. So, she probably isn’t going to take the court in a left direction,” law professor Paul Butler said on PBS Newshour at the time. In an interview with The Washington Post, another law school professor, Geoffrey R. Stone, said, “She’s much more of a lawyer than a partisan,” adding, “She is more interested as a scholar in thinking through hard issues rather than advocating particular ideological or political perspectives.”
And while most Republicans in the Senate opposed her, a handful of them actually gave her their support — including Senator Lindsay Graham. But seeing as Kagan actually has been a pretty reliable liberal vote, maybe those Republicans are having second thoughts more than ten years later.
Don't play poker with Elena Kagan
Ever wonder what a Supreme Court justice does for fun? Ruth Bader Ginsberg loved the opera, Antonin Scalia enjoyed a day out in the woods with his hunting rifle (more on that later), and Elena Kagan is reportedly an excellent poker player. You might not think that a person whose basic job description is to make sure everyone in the United States is playing fair would excel at a game based on skilled fibbing, but it’s the truth.
“She used to play poker, and I quickly learned not to do that because she is a good poker player,” a former Harvard classmate told The Harvard Crimson. And on an episode of “Jeopardy!” contestant Stephen Newman also remembered losing a game of poker to Kagan while she was a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, saying, “She cleaned us out,” via Above the Law. In fact, lots of people who have interacted socially with Kagan agree that she is not to be messed with when it comes to the card game.
So, never go to a poker night at Kagan’s unless you’re prepared to lose good money. Noted.
Elena Kagan is a single justice
It may be true that marriage rates have gone down in the past few decades, but it’s still rare to see a high-ranking public official who has never been married. But this does describe Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who is the only sitting justice who has remained single and childless for her entire life.
In a frustrating, if predictable, turn of events, her marital status once sparked rumors about her sexual orientation. Friends of Kagan’s confirmed to Politico back in 2010 that Kagan is not, in fact, a lesbian; she just never found a man she wanted to get married to. “She dated men when we were in law school, we talked about men — who in our class was cute, who she would like to date, all of those things. She definitely dated when she was in D.C. after law school, when she was in Chicago – and she just didn’t find the right person,” Kagan’s law school buddy and longtime bestie Sarah Walzer told the outlet.
The bigger question is why were people so pressed about her marital status to begin with? As Yale law student Laura Safdie told The New York Times, “I hope we get to the point where whether someone is married or not has no bearing on what type of justice they are going to be.”
Antonin Scalia took her on hunting trips
Elena Kagan may be a moderate liberal, but she’s still a liberal. And that is why some might have found it surprising that she had a genuine friendship with the extremely conservative Antonin Scalia. Their friendship is not the only unexpected pairing the Supreme Court has seen: Scalia was also known to be best of buds with Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
After Scalia’s death, Kagan spoke about their bond during a talk at the University of Arizona. “He was as generous and warm and funny as a person could be. I just so appreciate all the time I got to spend with him,” she said, via AZCentral. She also shared an anecdote about how they first became friends. Apparently, she had joked to another Republican Senator before her confirmation that if she was appointed to the bench, she would ask Justice Scalia to take her hunting. Long story short, Scalia and Kagan ended up going on a lot of hunting trips together.
In a 2018 interview with Georgetown University Law Center (via C-SPAN), she said of their outings, “I actually quite liked it, which I think some of my East Coast friends are horrified about.”
Elena Kagan went to bat for gay rights at Harvard
In general, Elena Kagan has a reputation for taking practical, middle-of-the-road positions in general, but that doesn’t mean she’s always afraid to cause a stir. Before the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, a policy that discriminated against openly gay service members, Kagan was already taking a firm stand against the policy.
Per NPR, when she was made dean of Harvard Law School in the early ’00s, she called DADT “a moral outrage” and cited it as the reason why she didn’t want military recruiters at the institution. (According to Politifact, recruiters weren’t allowed to use the career office for a short while, but at that time, she “encouraged the military to recruit through the Harvard Law School Veterans Association.”) The policy wouldn’t be officially axed until 2011, but she got major brownie points and admiration from her students and colleagues. “And the most important thing that we knew, was that she wanted to make sure that those who wanted to serve in the military were able to do so,” assistant dean Mark Webber told CNN.
Elena Kagan's two brothers teach high school in NYC
Elena Kagan is a pretty private person and she rarely talks about her family, so you may be surprised to know that she has two brothers who are both high school teachers in New York City. Can you imagine if your Freshman homeroom teacher was related to a Supreme Court justice? We can’t either.
Elena Kagan’s brother Irving Kagan, who has both bachelor’s and masters degrees from Yale (no biggie), became a high school teacher, according to The New York Times. As The Athenian noted, Irving happened to land a gig as a social studies teacher at Hunter College High School, which is significant on multiple levels: Not only did he and Elena both attend the high school, but their mother was a teacher at Hunter College Elementary School, which feeds right into Hunter College High. Evidently, he’s a one-of-a-kind instructor: One student said in The New York Times that sometimes he gets so excited by his subject he will begin “huffing and puffing.”
And her other brother, Marc Kagan, is also a high school teacher — though his journey took a few more turns. As The New York Times recounted, the Yale alum — yes, yet another Bulldog — worked as a subway mechanic following graduation. He rose up in the ranks of union leadership, got fired eventually, and became a high school teacher. He eventually ended up at the Bronx High School of Science, where he teaches world history and, as one student said in the NYT, “definitely yells.”
In college, Elena Kagan wrote about socialism
For all that has been said about Elena Kagan’s moderate stances on most topics, it may be hard for you to believe that she was once associated with the dreaded “S” word. That’s right folks, we’re talking about socialism. Are we saying that Kagan is a socialist? No. Are we saying that Kagan is trying to make the United States a socialist nation? No, not that either. She did write her senior thesis at Princeton on socialism in America, though — stirring up quite a bit of debate at the time of her nomination.
Kagan’s thesis, according to The Atlantic, was an examination of socialism in New York in the early 20th century, and argued that socialism failed because of mistakes the socialists themselves made as well as other outside factors. Some, including Kagan’s thesis advisor and writers for Politico and Newsweek, found the whole paper pretty tame and practical on the whole. However others, like right-wing blogger Erick Erickson thought the paper was evidence that Kagan is “an open and avowed socialist.”
If she is an open and avowed socialist, Kagan seems like a pretty mellow revolutionary to us.
Unlike many of her fellow justices, Elena Kagan is not Catholic
Sure, it sometimes seems like everyone on the Supreme Court these days is Catholic, but Elena Kagan at least is very much not. Like the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg as well as her fellow liberal justice Stephen Breyer, Kagan is Jewish. The Times of Israel reported that Kagan said she had a “very strange Jewish upbringing.” While her mother was raised in a very observant Jewish home, Kagan and her siblings were more pick-and-choose when it came to religious observance. “My mother’s view was that everything depended on how good the rabbi was, and she would go from synagogue to synagogue to synagogue to find a rabbi she liked,” she said.
When asked about the rather skewed Catholic-to-Jewish ratio on the Supreme Court bench, Kagan basically said that religion shouldn’t really matter if the justices were doing their jobs correctly. “I don’t think the fact I’m Jewish will matter with respect to the Jerusalem passport case, and it shouldn’t,” she said, according to CNN. “Anyone who comes before the court should expect impartial justice, and getting the same kind of treatment.”
Elena Kagan's net worth is pretty standard for the Supreme Court
We know that no Supreme Court justice can exactly be called “working class,” but that doesn’t stop us from being curious about how stacked, exactly, their bank accounts really are. Let’s be real, how much money you have totally impacts how you view the world and we can all just admit that now, right? And a 2017 Center for Public Integrity report indicates that the Supreme Court is, indeed, mostly made up of rich people.
The article estimates that Stephen Breyer is the wealthiest, while Elena Kagan’s total net worth is pretty small in comparison. That said, when we say “small,” we mean a net worth of approximately $1million or more. So, it’s all relative really. After Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the bench, GoBankingRates calculated new net worth estimates of all nine justices, based on their 2019 financial reports. This outlet put Kagan as the sixth richest justice, with a total net worth somewhere between $1.3 million and $3 million. Like we said, it’s all relative.
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