Brooklyn Boro

Supreme Court Justice Kagan speaks at Brooklyn school about challenges to SCOTUS

September 14, 2018 By Rob Abruzzese, Legal Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (left) was in Brooklyn Wednesday to talk with journalist Dahlia Lithwick (right) and the students at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Carroll Gardens. Photos by Matthew Sussman for Hannah Senesh Community Day School

While all the talk surrounding the U.S. Supreme Court surrounds the confirmation hearing of Hon. Brett Kavanaugh, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan dropped by a Jewish day school in Brooklyn to talk about her upbringing and some of the challenges the court faces today.

With the occasional sounds of the subway passing by in the distance, Supreme Court Justice Kagan was at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Carroll Gardens on Wednesday as part of the school’s regular Conversations at Senesh, the Steinhardt Speaker Series, for a discussion with journalist Dahlia Lithwick.

“Justice Kagan has spent her life blazing trails, shattering glass ceilings and challenging the status quo when she thought there was a better way,” said Nicole Nash, the head of Hannah Senesh. “It’s a great honor to host you at our school justice K and to welcome you to our community.”

The evening start off very light hearted with Lithwick joking about gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon’s preference for cinnamon raisin bagels with lox.

“Not what we had in my family,” Justice Kagan said.

Then the justice was asked about her Jewish upbringing to which the justice admitted that she had a bit of an odd upbringing.

“You would think that I come from an Orthodox family, a Modern Orthodox family, but actually my family didn’t know what it was,” said Kagan while laughing. “My mother came from an extremely, extremely religious family. By the time she had kids, she decided not to be observant. She kept a kosher home so my grandparents would eat there, but otherwise we were the kind of Jews that kept a kosher home and went out and ordered shrimp in a Chinese restaurant.”

The two then joked about a famous back and forth between Justice Kagan and Sen. Lindsey Graham during her confirmation hearings in 2010 when he asked her where she was on Christmas day and she responded, “You know, like a good Jew, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

“Then Chuck Schumer explained it,” she said to big laughs. “He said, ‘This is what you do, and then you go to the movies.”

Eventually the conversation turned much more serious as Lithwick began to ask about the Supreme Court, and noted that even as politics has become increasingly ugly, decorum in the court has remained.

“It’s an amazing thing really because we obviously disagree profoundly on important things, things that each of us feels deeply about,” Kagan said.

“It’s a good thing that that’s not what the court in recent decades has been like,” she continued. “That’s in large part because of the leadership of the Chief Justice [John Roberts] now and the chief justice before him as well.”

When asked about the court becoming increasingly political itself, Kagan explained that it is a dangerous time for the court because if people view it as overly political, its decisions might not be as legitimate in the eyes of the citizens it governs. She said that it’s something the justices themselves are very mindful of.

“There will be 5-4 decisions and 5-4 decisions that people care about and feel they really lost, but you try as hard as you can to reduce the number of those, and you do that by taking big questions and making them small,” she said. “When you take big questions and you don’t have to decide the whole thing. You can find a place where more of us agree and can achieve consensus.”

She added that when the court was limited to just eight justices, following the death of Hon. Antonin Scalia, it tried very hard to avoid 4-4 decisions so people wouldn’t lose faith in the court.

“Sometimes it had a bit of a ridiculous air to it,” Kagan said. “We answered a question that nobody was interested in and affected nobody and left the big thing that had to be decided out there. We’re not going to take big, big steps when we’re divided in this sort of way. We’re going to find compromise positions and keep talking until we do.”

Finally, Kagan spoke directly to the students in the audience on the topic of coming to a compromise and said that the key to convincing someone else of your argument is to listen to theirs first.

“You learn things when you open yourself up to different ideas, even ideas that seem foreign or crazy,” Justice Kagan said. “It’s all of a sudden, ‘I get that,’ or maybe, ‘I get that and I agree with that.’ You have to be open yourself to changing your mind to change anybody else’s.