Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Thought experiment: what if Kagan is a professional?

President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has undergone a lot of criticism for her lack of experience. One particular variant of this criticism is the fact--noted by Paul Campos in this article--that she has hardly made known her political views on hot button political/legal issues, such as campaign finance reform, to name only one. She apparently has held her cards close in her (apparently very sparse) publications and even in her conversations with colleagues. Campos writes
Her thin sheaf of academic writings addresses only a handful of very narrow technical legal issues in an especially cautious and non-revelatory fashion. She has never published a word not intended for an academic audience. Her work as a lawyer—that is, as someone who is professionally obligated to advocate the positions of her employer, whether she agrees with them or not—tells us nothing about her own views.
He goes on to say
Over the past two months, I’ve spoken to nine of Kagan’s former colleagues at the two law schools where she has taught. All of these people, some of whom support Kagan’s nomination and some who oppose it, insist they know nothing about Kagan’s views on any significant legal or political issue—and I believe them.
One (mostly unspoken) insinuation here is that Kagan might have, for a long time, been seeking the Supreme Court nomination and carefully crafted her writings and even conversations to avoid controversy. Another possibility is that she lacks intellectual curiosity, or that she has a too mechanistic (and therefore somewhat unrealistic) view of the American legal system and how it is supposed to work. All these points are at least plausible given what we now know about her, and if they have any validity, it is a cause for concern.

But there is another possibility. Maybe Kagan adheres to a standard of professionalism that commands one not to wear one's political views on one's sleeve. Much of her academic career, as I understand it, was as a college administrator (I believe she was president Harvard Law School, but stand to be corrected). In that position, one's political views are not always relevant or of first importance.

None of this necessarily vitiates Mr. Campos's argument. One of his biggest beefs about the Supreme Court nomination process is that nominees rarely, if ever, can honestly articulate their political views, even though the post to which they are nominated is overtly political. Indeed, part of his criticism of Kagan is that she once wrote about the process as a vapid exercise and now is engaging in the same vapidity.

I think I am cynical realistic enough to know that paucity of information on Kagan's political orientation is at the very least suspiciously convenient and that as long as the culture of selecting judges remains what it is now, we are to expect nominees with similarly sparse and uncontroversial histories. I also realize the difficulty of being "non-political" as an academic or even as an administrator (the "personal is political" and "the death of objectivity," and all that). And if Kagan really was a conscientiously minded professional who did her job as "neutrally" as possible because it was her job, then maybe we don't necessarily want that type of person on the court. (The culture of professionalism isn't all it's cracked up to be, and it's not necessarily a good thing: witness the way academic departments knowingly tolerate professors who have long since given up on even their most basic duties and who are simply going through the motions because they have tenure.)

Still, what if?

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