Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Monday, 10 May 2010 15:30 UK

Profile: US Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan

President Barack Obama's nomination of America's first female Solicitor General, Elena Kagan, to the US Supreme Court has surprised few in Washington DC.

Solicitor General Elena Kagan
Elena Kagan's selection surprised few in Washington DC

She had long been considered the frontrunner for the post.

In choosing both Ms Kagan and his previous nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, Mr Obama carefully considered their "real world" credentials: time spent outside the courtroom, living and working as regular Americans.

He is hoping that the extra-legal experiences of his Supreme Court appointments will enhance their understanding of how rulings affect the daily lives of Americans.

Ms Kagan appears to fit that bill. She has a desirable pedigree, which includes attending Princeton University, Oxford and Harvard Law School.

But she has never been a judge. Indeed, before becoming solicitor general in March 2009, Ms Kagan had never argued a case in court.

That differentiates her from the current Supreme Court justices, each of whom has spent most of their professional life inside courthouses.

Smooth sailing

Ms Kagan, on the other hand, was a tenured professor at the University of Chicago before receiving the prestigious appointment of Dean at Harvard's Law School. She is considered an intellectual leader, and perhaps a counterweight to Chief Justice John Roberts.

Born 28 April, 1960; grew up in New York City
Like Mr Obama, served on the Harvard Law Review
Worked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall
Served in the Clinton administration 1995-1999
Appointed Dean of Harvard Law School in 2003
Confirmed as US solicitor general March 2009

She also spent several years working in President Bill Clinton's White House, first as legal counsel and later as a domestic policy adviser, sharpening her first-hand knowledge of the intersection of law and policy.

Ms Kagan sailed through her confirmation as US solicitor general and is expected to have a similarly smooth path to the Supreme Court.

She would be the third female justice currently on the court and the fourth female appointee in history. She would be the third Jewish justice currently serving and the eighth in history.

Ms Kagan is widely considered a moderate pick, neither particularly exciting to liberals nor antagonising to conservatives.

Having never been a judge, she has no rulings to critique, so senators will largely have to rely on her testimony before the Judiciary Committee and her academic writings to determine her judicial philosophy. That could prove either a blessing or a curse.

'Moral injustice'

As Dean of Harvard Law School, Ms Kagan briefly banned military recruiters from using the school's recruitment office over her objections to their ban on openly gay service members, although she continued to allow the recruiters on to school grounds.

Harvard had refused to assist military recruiters for more than 20 years because of the ban, but following the 11 September 2001 attacks, the institution gave way to renewed political pressure - and the possibility of losing millions of dollars of federal funding - and allowed the military once again to use its recruitment office.

Ms Kagan was appointed Law School Dean the following year, and openly criticised the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy. She called it "a moral injustice of the first order" and told students via e-mail that she abhorred the policy.

Elena Kagan as a student in 1977
Kagan, pictured here in 1977, would be the fourth justice from New York City

The potential for Ms Kagan's opposition to Don't Ask, Don't Tell to upset her confirmation hearings has been defused in recent years though.

Polling by the Gallup organisation shows that the majority of Americans now support allowing gay men and women to serve in the military. The Pentagon is currently engaged in a review of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which is expected to result in a strategy for repealing the policy.

The Obama administration has pushed back against rumours that Ms Kagan is a lesbian, after CBS News published a blog post indicating that she would be the first openly gay Supreme Court justice.

Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director who is assisting the administration with the Supreme Court deliberations, said that the blog post's author, Ben Domenech, was "applying old stereotypes to single women with successful careers".

CBS responded by removing the post and Domenech offered an apology to Ms Kagan for repeating "a Harvard rumour in a speculative blog post".

Unknown views

Since the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a woman's right to an abortion in 1973, abortion has been a hot-button issue in Supreme Court confirmations.

It was a critical factor when President Ronald Reagan's nominee Robert Bork was rejected by the Senate in 1987.

Ms Kagan has been quiet on the topic - and on many others - but she is assumed to be pro-choice.

That lack of clarity around her judicial visions concerns some progressives.

Widely-read blogger Glenn Greenwald has vigorously questioned her silence on some of the Bush administration's constitutional controversies, including its unprecedented extension of executive power in areas such as detention, rendition and surveillance.

Greenwald worries that appointing someone without a clear record of judgments risks resulting in a justice whose philosophy is ultimately at odds with that of the administration.

That would put Ms Kagan in a camp with justices John Paul Stevens or David Souter, who were both appointed by Republicans but ended up aligning with the court's liberal wing.

But for now, most experts are waiting to hear her views during the confirmation process before passing judgment.

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