I am writing to follow up on some of the concerns I am hearing about my colleague Elena Kagan’s civil rights record and whether she would be a fit candidate for the U.S. Supreme Court. While it is certainly up to the President to find the ideal person and to look at a number of factors in reaching a decision, I hear criticisms of Elena Kagan that are contrary to my knowledge of her during the last 25 years or so, and that do not adequately represent her record. I share this with you so that you’ll have a more complete assessment of Elena Kagan’s views on race and civil rights matters.
After graduating from Harvard Law School and clerking in the circuit court, Kagan ultimately clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. I don’t think anyone can recall a negative word that Marshall ever said about Elena Kagan, and in fact, when he spoke about her, it was always in glowing terms. Elena taught at the University of Chicago before joining the Harvard Law School faculty. As a result of Kagan’s tenacity, focus, and clarity, the university leadership ultimately appointed her as the first woman dean of Harvard Law School.
During her tenure at Harvard Law School, Dean Kagan made a number of important decisions. First, virtually every Harvard dean, all men, had assumed the title as dean and as the Sir Isaac Royall Professor at Harvard Law School. Isaac Royall was one of the initial supporters of Harvard Law School, and actually sold his slaves in Antigua to support the creation of the law school. Dean Kagan asked to be appointed the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor of Law. Charles Hamilton Houston is Harvard Law School’s most distinguished African American graduate and was the first African American on the Harvard Law Review in 1922. His work in creating a strong legal basis to end segregation and in mentoring former students such as Thurgood Marshall and Oliver Hill, both Howard Law School graduates, was a legacy in and of itself. He did much more in his successful litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Selecting the Charles Hamilton Houston title as the chair she would receive as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School was an important request by Dean Kagan. It offers, I think, a compelling sense of her commitment to diversity and equality. She has held that title since 2003 and in so many of her public addresses talked about the legacy of Charles Hamilton Houston. Dean Kagan was also quite supportive when I opened the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School in 2005.
Throughout my time here, I have watched Dean Kagan work to address the issue of faculty diversity. As dean, she was quite responsive in trying to push more diversity on the Harvard Law School faculty and student body. While some have criticized the fact that many white males were hired at the law school, Dean Kagan was very supportive of women and men of color, including making sure that the faculty offered tenure to Professor Ken Mack and supported the appointment of Guhan Subramanian, a South Asian law professor, and Jeannie Suk, an Asian American woman.
Dean Kagan pushed the faculty to extend appointments to African American and Latina some of whom chose to remain at their respective institutions rather than accept a position at Harvard Law School. We also have current candidates under consideration for tenured appointments who were visiting scholars at Harvard Law School during Elena Kagan’s deanship.