As the rumblings become louder that President Obama is going to choose U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan as our next Supreme Court justice, somebody needs to ask a rather impolitic question: How, precisely, is Kagan's prospective nomination different from George W. Bush's ill-fated attempt to put Harriet Miers on the nation's highest court?
On its face, the question seems absurd. Five years ago, Miers was derided as a careerist mediocrity whose primary qualification to be on the Supreme Court was a slavish devotion to President Bush. Kagan, by contrast is a purportedly "brilliant" legal scholar who was granted tenure at the University of Chicago and Harvard, before becoming dean of the latter's law school.
Kagan's work reminded me of Orwell's observation that, if book reviewers were honest, 19 of 20 reviews would consist of the sentence, "this book inspires in me no thoughts whatever."
Yesterday, I read everything Elena Kagan has ever published. It didn't take long: in the nearly 20 years since Kagan became a law professor, she's published very little academic scholarship—three law review articles, along with a couple of shorter essays and two brief book reviews. Somehow, Kagan got tenure at Chicago in 1995 on the basis of a single article in The Supreme Court Review—a scholarly journal edited by Chicago's own faculty—and a short essay in the school's law review. She then worked in the Clinton administration for several years before joining Harvard as a visiting professor of law in 1999. While there she published two articles, but since receiving tenure from Harvard in 2001 (and becoming dean of the law school in 2003) she has published nothing. (While it's true law school deans often do little scholarly writing during their terms, Kagan is remarkable both for how little she did in the dozen years prior to becoming Harvard's dean, and for never having written anything intended for a more general audience, either before or after taking that position.)
Kagan's handful of publications touch on topics like regulating offensive speech, analyzing legislative motivations for speech regulations, and evaluating the process of administrative law-making. But on the vast majority of issues before the Court, Kagan has no stated opinion. Her scholarship provides no clues regarding how she would rule on such crucial contemporary issues as the scope of the president's power in wartime, the legality of torture, or the ability of Congress to rein in campaign spending by corporations.