Initial Kagan Critiques Miss the (First Amendment) Point

As I’ve been re-reading Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s publications – of which there are surprisingly few for someone of her achievements and reputation – I’ve had half an eye on the TV punditry.  It seems that the leading critique from both the right (e.g., Fox News, Senator Jon Kyl – who’s usually excellent on these things) and extreme left (e.g., Jane Hamsher) is that Kagan doesn’t have judicial experience. 

This just completely misses the point.  As a solicitor general (the “Tenth Justice”) and former dean of Harvard Law – where she did a magnificent job and gained the respect of scholars from across the political spectrum – not to mention senior roles in the Clinton White House, teaching at the University of Chicago and clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kagan absolutely has the credentials and intellectual chops to be a Supreme Court justice.  Indeed, as I said this morning, her scholarly persona means she’s probably better suited to being a justice than to being solicitor general – especially given that her performance as an oral advocate has left something to be desired.  And we’ve had plenty of non-judges on the Court, people coming from the executive branch (William Rehnquist), academia (Felix Frankfurter), private practice (Lewis F. Powell, Jr.), and politics (Hugo Black).

I actually agree with President Obama that it’s not a bad idea to have somebody with a “different” professional background on the Court – although Kagan’s time in the ivory tower is no more likely to give her a common touch than a nominee coming from the “judicial monastery.”  And, as the president said, Kagan “has won accolades from observers across the ideological spectrum, not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament.”  So the problem really isn’t her supposed lack of relevant experience.

One problem is precisely her very short paper trail – though there are no indications she’s anything but a conventional modern liberal, on which more in future – but something to tease out of that trail, combined with her year as SG, is a certain hostility to the freedom of speech.  For example, in her article “Regulation of Hate Speech and Pornography After R.A.V.,” she attempts to find a constitutional way to restrict the sorts of speech that she personally finds offensive.  And in her defense of the federal “depiction of animal cruelty” statute – which the Supreme Court struck down 8-1 – she argued for a balancing test weighing the value of speech against its social harm.  Not to mention her arguments in Citizens United, the campaign finance statute that, until it was struck down could have banned books, flyers, and movies that contained political speech.  (Interestingly, in Citizens United, she abandoned the very “level political playing field” argument the president invokes to criticize the decision.)

I’m of course not criticizing her appearance as an advocate defending the federal laws at issue in Stevens and Citizens United – that’s her job as solicitor general – but if you read the argument transcripts, you see that she could have done so in ways less sweepingly inimical to free speech. There is other evidence to this effect (see her First Amendment articles here, here, and here, plus others lacking public links), but you get the idea.