Kagan Was Tough, Open Say Students

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Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last year, during Elena Kagan's solicitor general hearings, the now Supreme Court nominee was asked what she would bring to the job, and she responded that she would bring some of the communication skills that had made her a "famously excellent teacher" at the University of Chicago Law School and then at Harvard Law School, where she was named dean in 2003. It was a not-immodest declaration. But discussions with several of her former HLS students revealed that the woman most of them still referred to as Dean Kagan was, in fact, quite famously excellent in the classroom.

In a yearlong Public Law Workshop class Kagan co-taught, taken by twenty students in their third (3L) year, Kagan had students read other professors' works-in-progress (from Harvard and other law schools) each week; those scholars would then come to the weekly two-hour class and discuss their work. "She would let students and whoever else was participating in the discussion take it wherever they wanted for the first half hour of class or so," said Jay Cox, 29, a 2006 HLS grad who's now an associate in the Washington, D.C., office of Jenner and Block. "After a while, a lot of times, the topics we were talking about were pretty complicated. People would meander all over the place. Dean Kagan would always sort of cut in with a one- or two-sentence comment that advanced the discussion far more than anything anyone else had said."

In her first-year (1L) classes, respect for Kagan was mixed with a touch of fear. "She was extremely Socratic," said Brian Radigan, 31, an associate in the New York office of Davis, Polk and Wardwell, who took Civil Procedure with Kagan in 2002. "She was fierce, feared, and extremely well-regarded." As they so often do, students put on the spot with her thought-provoking questions feared coming up short — either by not being smart enough to keep up with her, or simply not having done the reading. "She certainly didn't do anything to mitigate the embarrassment," explained Radigan. Once, a friend of Cox's was caught having not done the reading for Kagan's Administrative Law class. "Dean Kagan called on him and he said, 'I'm sorry, I haven't read or thought about this, I don't know the answer.' She said, 'Do you have your book?' He said, 'Yes.' She said, 'Do you have a brain? Open up to that page and spend the next minute figuring it out.' He did, in a state of pure terror," said Cox. But, said Radigan, "She was good-natured about it — you could tell she enjoyed it and I think the students enjoyed it as well."

Students also recalled that Kagan made sure to include in the Public Law Workshop "professors of liberal and conservative backgrounds," said Eric Haren, 29, an associate at a prominent D.C. firm. These included Jack Goldsmith, the conservative and controversial law professor at Harvard who would later write The Terror Presidency, a critical investigation of the Bush administration's use of executive power, and Randy Barnett, a legal-theory professor at Georgetown.

A student, now 30, who had been active in the Federalist Society, the national organization for conservative and libertarian law students and lawyers, said that as dean, Kagan was "really concerned with why conservative students were unhappy on campus." In 2005, the Federalist Society held its annual symposium at Harvard, and "she was tremendously supportive of that," this student, who asked to remain anonymous, recalled. At the symposium's banquet, Kagan gave a speech where she said, "I love the Federalist Society, but you are not my people." Afterward, the Harvard chapter made up T-shirts that said "I Love the Federalist Society" with Kagan's name on them. "We left off the second part of the quote," said the student.

"She probably has very few things we'd agree upon in terms of judicial philosophy," added the Federalist Society member. "But if I were President Obama, she's exactly who I would pick."