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Supreme speaker: At UCLA Law, Justice Elena Kagan advises students on civility and the virtue of listening

Kagan is the 11th Supreme Court justice to come to the law school

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Jennifer Mnookin and Elena Kagan
Todd Cheney/UCLA

UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin, left, talks with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Days before the U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its 2018–19 term, Justice Elena Kagan engaged with UCLA School of Law students, faculty and alumni in a series of insightful encounters on campus.

The Sept. 27 visit by Kagan, who is the 11th Supreme Court justice to come to UCLA Law, was highlighted by a conversation with UCLA Law Dean Jennifer Mnookin before 300 guests at the Herb Alpert School of Music’s Schoenberg Hall. Kagan shared advice and wisdom from her distinguished three-decade career.

Kagan emphasized that it is in the interest of the justices and the nation that the Supreme Court rise above the climate of political rancor, crediting Chief Justice John Roberts for setting a tone of civility and a drive toward consensus. She noted that this effort became especially important after the 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia left the court with four liberal and four conservative justices. With no other way to break 4-4 ties, she said, the justices tried harder than before to find compromise.

“It was very important in terms of making clear to people that we were a functioning institution which was not as deeply divided as they might have thought,” she said. “The court’s strength as an institution of American governance depends on people believing in it having a certain kind of legitimacy, on people believing that it is not simply an extension of politics, that its decision-making has a kind of integrity to it that is something different from what you find in the political branches.”

The law school milieu was familiar to Kagan, who served as the dean of Harvard Law School and a law professor at the University of Chicago and Harvard. The only current justice who was not previously a judge, Kagan served in the Clinton and Obama Administrations, including as Obama’s solicitor general, the person who represents the executive branch before the Supreme Court.

Asked about the importance of diversity on the court, Kagan cautioned that not all people of the same background think alike. But she said that diversity is imperative and makes a big difference.

As an example, she invoked Safford Unified School District v. Redding, a 2009 case involving the strip-search of a 13-year-old girl that stemmed from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision by UCLA Law alumna Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw. At the time, Kagan reminded, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the only woman on the Supreme Court. “You could see this divide between the way a woman was able to put herself in the shoes of a 13-year-old girl being strip-searched by a male principal” and the way other justices responded, Kagan said.

While Kagan’s appearance happened to take place on the same day that the nation was gripped by historic hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Kagan declined to comment on the Kavanaugh matter.

Mnookin asked Kagan for her advice to law students, who made up about half of the people in the audience. Kagan encouraged students to embrace the challenging first-year curriculum of core legal principles and intensive case studies, saying, “Something transformational can happen in the way your brain works.” She also said that students should go out of their way to get to know professors who can become mentors for life.

Most of all, Kagan advised the future lawyers to “listen to the other students. Because part of it is about professors and the books and all of that. But part of it is about this wonderful community of students that you have all around you and, one suspects, of many different backgrounds, of many different views. And I think part of learning how to lawyer is learning how to listen to people of all kinds.”

Known for her vibrant and often witty prose, as well as a pop-culture affinity uncommon among jurists on the high court, Kagan drew laughter when she referred to a sketch from the HBO comedy show “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” that takes aim at the Supreme Court. “Have you ever seen the one where we’re all replaced by dogs? It’s worth watching,” she said with a broad smile, in response to a student’s question about satire. “It’s worth watching — once.”

Editor’s note: Story updated on Oct. 11, 2018 to note that Elena Kagan was the 11th Supreme Court justice to visit the UCLA School of Law.

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