10 Factors That Could Shape Kagan's Supreme Court Decisions

If confirmed, Kagan's background will have an impact on her rulings as a justice.

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6. Ability to find common ground

When Kagan took the reigns of Harvard Law School, factions between liberal and conservative faculty members meant a toxic environment, but Kagan brought them together through compromise, specifically regarding new hires. President Barack Obama touts his nominee as a consensus builder, but Harris explains Kagan's success as dean may not translate to an ability to unite the Supreme Court. "I don't think the Court is a political body; you don't wheel and deal, you don't negotiate, you don't trade," Harris says. "It's not that kind of a setting."

7. Strong personality

In the Clinton White House and as dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan learned to deal with big egos and important people, so it won't take her long to feel comfortable speaking out on the Court. "She's somebody who can roll with the punches and give back as good as she gets," says O'Connor. "She's not going to be intimidated by the rest of the justices."

8. Gender

If confirmed, Kagan will be the fourth female Supreme Court justice in history and the third woman on the current Court. But her experience is different from the pioneering former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first two woman on the court, simply because times have changed. "She's of a generation of women really that are comfortable in positions of power," says Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Cornell University. "But she undoubtedly is aware of persistent issues of sexism and gender inequality."

9. Age

Recent Supreme Court cases on software patents, Internet pornography, and freedom of speech online reflect technology's increasing role in society. Kagan's relative youth means her exposure to technology is greater. At 50, Kagan will be the youngest judge on the court, joining Justices Roberts and Sotomayor as the under-60 crowd. Her influence on the Court could stretch three decades or more.

10. Pragmatic vs. Idealistic

Justices often split on conservative vs. liberal lines, but Goldstein says they can also split on how they view the law, idealistically or pragmatically. When interpreting statutes, idealist, or strict constructionist, justices pursue a textual purity, focusing on the letter of the law. Pragmatic justices look at the spirit of the law. They consider what Congress would have sensibly intended by the words they wrote. Goldstein says the younger justices tend to be more pragmatic, and Kagan is unlikely to be an exception. "She never, in those [Clinton] memos, says 'we just got to take a stand on principle, here,'" he explains. "I think she will be in the 'let's make this work' camp."

  • See a slide show of the members of the Supreme Court.
  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Elena Kagan's Supreme Court nomination.