By Dan Rivoli
President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, would be the fourth female justice, serving alongside two other women from New York City. But Kagan would be the only sitting justice from Manhattan—the Upper West Side, to be exact.
While the Brooklyn-bred Ruth Bader Ginsburg taught at Columbia Law School and Antonin Scalia was raised in Queens, Kagan is the quintessential Upper West Sider. She was raised in a Jewish household at 320 West End Ave. and West 75th Street. Her mother taught at Hunter College Elementary School, a public school for gifted students that Elena attended, and her father was a tenants’ rights lawyer who twice chaired Community Board 7.
All three of the Kagan children followed in their parents’ footsteps. Irving teaches at Hunter College High School and Marc is on the faculty of Bronx High School of Science. Their sister pursued both academia and law.
After graduating from Hunter College High School, Kagan attended Princeton as an undergraduate and got her law degree from Harvard. She clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, taught at the University of Chicago, served in the Clinton Administration working on domestic policy and landed back at Harvard Law School as a faculty member. She was named dean in 2003, becoming the first woman to serve in that role.
In 2009, Obama selected her as the first female solicitor general. In that capacity, she argued cases for the U.S. government in front of the Supreme Court. After the longest-serving justice, John Paul Stevens, announced his retirement in April, Obama announced May 10 that Kagan would be his nominee.
At the White House press conference, the president praised her legal scholarship and hinted at the role he’d like to see her play on the court.
“Elena is respected and admired not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament—her openness to a broad array of viewpoints; her habit, to borrow a phrase from Justice Stevens, ‘of understanding before disagreeing’; her fair-mindedness and skill as a consensus-builder,” Obama said in published remarks.
Kagan, in her remarks, reflected on the influence of her parents, both of whom were immigrants and the first in their families to attend college.
“If this day has just a touch of sadness in it for me, it is because my parents aren’t here to share it,” Kagan said. “My father was the kind of lawyer who used his skills and training to represent everyday people and to improve a community. My mother was a proud public schoolteacher, as are my two brothers—the kind of teachers whom students remember for the rest of their lives. My parents’ lives and their memory remind me every day of the impact public service can have, and I pray every day that I live up to the example they set.”
Though she spent years in academia, Kagan also had an eye on politics. At 20, she worked on Democrat Liz Holtzman’s 1980 Senate campaign. According to a recent article in the Daily Princetonian, a young Kagan drank vodka tonics that election night and wept when she learned that Holtzman had lost to Alfonse D’Amato. A writer for the student newspaper then, Kagan reflected on growing up in Manhattan during a time when those who won office were “real Democrats—not closet Republicans that one sees so often these days but men and women committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government,” the New York Times reported. The piece represents one of the few clues to Kagan’s political views.
During the Holtzman race, she crossed paths with now-Borough President Scott Stringer, then just starting out in Upper West Side politics.
“She comes from a great West Side family,” Stringer said. “This is a neighborhood that plays such a critical role in community-based planning. Growing up here gives her such a depth of passion and knowledge beyond her incredible education experience.”
Her father, Robert Kagan, chaired Board 7 from 1969 to 1971 and again from 1974 to 1975. He was a vocal critic of the Westway project, which would have moved the West Side Highway underground and added an expressway in Lower Manhattan.
As a housing lawyer, her father also helped ensure that the 20-block West Side Urban Renewal Area included low-income housing alongside market rate residences.
“He shared a commitment of many, many people [on the Upper West Side] that the community stay a diverse and mixed community,” said Ruth Messinger, a former City Council member who knew Robert Kagan from the community board. “That was evident in his work. That was obviously part of his professional, as well as his personal, life.”
Sally Goodgold, a community board colleague of Robert Kagan’s who is now a board member at several local organizations, described a closely-knit family that emphasized community service.
“They were a team, this family,” Goodgold said. “They did their own decisions based on the law and what was good for the city. I think she will carry that legacy with her.”