President Barack Obama has nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court of the United States; unless you've been unplugged all day, you've probably heard a lot of news and commentary about this nomination. Focus has been on some peripheral issues, including the nominee's private life, but has also zeroed in on what I can't help but think of as the important matters, primarily the nominee's experience, or lack thereof.
Kagan has spent most of her career in academia, with some notable excursions into government work: she was an associate White House counsel under Bill Clinton, was nominated (but never confirmed) to the U.S. Court of Appeals, and was appointed to the position of Solicitor General last year. Aside from that her career has been mostly that of a professor, first at the University of Chicago Law School and then at Harvard Law School, where she went from being a visiting professor to, eventually, the Dean of Harvard Law School (interesting, she was named to that position by then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who is now President Obama's economic adviser).
She has never tried a case in court as a lawyer, nor has she ever served as a judge.
When George W. Bush was president, he was criticized--rightly, I think--for a kind of cronyism that made him place old connections in important jobs, regardless of their qualifications. Chief among those instances is the story of Harriet Miers, a Bush nominee for the Supreme Court. Miers' career was seen as far too lightweight for a SCOTUS nominee, and her nomination was scoffed at by the right and the left alike, in a rare moment of bipartisanship.
Some on the left would argue that Kagan's career is far, far more worthy of a Supreme Court nominee. But is it, really? Does having been the Dean of Harvard Law School make up for her lack of judicial experience? Does the existence of scholarly papers and addresses compensate for the absence of rulings which might be examined to show the nominee's judicial leanings?
Why is President Obama's tendency to surround himself with people from his world, people from Harvard or Chicago politics etc., never called "cronyism?" And how is the Senate supposed to evaluate a nominee with such a sparse record of judicial opinions, someone who has never even served as a judge?
When former President Bush nominated Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, there was a bipartisan outcry. It's too soon to say whether that will be the case this time, but there is some cause to think it might be; there are some on the left who are outraged that President Obama would appoint a woman who once served as an adviser to Goldman Sachs. Whether or not Kagan really is "the next Harriet Miers," I think this is another moment for bipartisanship.