Kagan on the grill

Kagan on the grill

We’re coming up on the Fourth of July – barbecue season. The media are abuzz – as of Wednesday, when we write these words – with the Senate’s grilling of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. The nation, or at least the Northeast, seems to appreciate her good humor, especially her reference to spending Christmas, “like all Jews, … probably in a Chinese restaurant.”

Even the Christian Science Monitor declared on Wednesday, “Kagan is funny…. Sometimes she is laugh-out-loud delightful.”

Of course there have been serious and uncomfortable moments in the hearings – particularly in questioning by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who seemed unduly adversarial – at least as of Wednesday. Senators are supposed to ask hard questions of nominees, in an effort to determine whether they have the right stuff – the legal knowledge and balanced judgment – to merit life tenure on the court. But Sessions’ manner was reminiscent of Sen. Arlen Specter’s rough treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. (Specter, of Pennsylvania, was a Republican at the time; he’s now a Democrat.)

But while Sessions’ angry demeanor was unwarranted and upsetting, one line of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s questioning was chilling.

The California Democrat asked Kagan to comment on the court’s 5-4 decision Monday against a Chicago ban of handgun ownership. The decision may limit states’ and local governments’ ability to protect their citizens.

“I come at the subject of guns probably different than any of my colleagues. I think I’ve seen too much,” she reminded her listeners. “I found the body of [San Francisco Mayor] Harvey Milk. I became mayor as a product of assassination.”

Why, she asked, did the court “throw out literally decades of precedent?”

Kagan gave perhaps the only answer she could, given that her own confirmation to the court was not certain: “Because the court decided as they did,” which is akin to the eternal parental cop-out “because I said so.”

But, though the decision is now, in her words, “settled law,” it is a setback, particularly for the city of Chicago. According to Ray Hanania, a columnist for the Chicago-based Southwest News-Herald, “the ruling came the morning after one of the most brutal weekends we’ve seen in a long time, with 29 people injured or killed in gun-related violence.” (Hanania’s column was headed “Welcome to Dodge City and the Not-so-OK Corral.”)

Feinstein also asked, “Do you believe the Constitution requires that the health of the mother be protected in any statute restricting access to abortion?”

Kagan’s answer was less evasive, although hedged about with legalisms: “I do think that the continuing holding of Roe and Doe v. Bolton is that women’s life and women’s health have to be protected in abortion regulation.”

The hearings have been an illuminating experience for the country – and not just for the glimpses we’ve been given of the nominee.


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