In speeches and writings submitted to Congress, portrait of Kagan emerges

WASHINGTON (AP) — Not so long ago, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan opined the law sometimes allows things that are "just plain dumb."

She once compared herself to Oprah Winfrey giving away swag on TV. And she routinely told students at one of the nation's most competitive law schools they should just relax and have fun.

From reams of files from Kagan's past, glimmers of the would-be Supreme Court justice's personality and style are emerging to help paint a fuller portrait for senators weighing her confirmation.

The documents provide glimpses of Kagan's sense of humor, her view of the importance and limits of the law, her take on the role of the Supreme Court in American life, and the major issues and sometimes-mundane tasks she handled during a career in legal circles, academia and a Democratic White House.

"Don't think that law is everything," she told a group of West Point cadets in a 2007 speech, reflecting on lessons she took away from her time serving as a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton.

"Even when the lawyers clear something, it may not be the right thing to do. It may be unethical, even if it's not illegal. Or it may just be plain dumb."

In the same talk, Kagan, who stepped aside Monday from her job as solicitor general, offered a flavor of how she might approach her job as a justice. She said she learned as a Clinton aide, "When in doubt and when possible, ask," and to seek "a real, not foreordained, answer."

A copy of the speech is one of the papers the White House turned over to the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday in preparation for the panel's hearings on Kagan's confirmation.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the panel's chairman, announced Wednesday the hearings would begin June 28, in time to be wrapped up before the Senate's weeklong July 4 break.

That would put the Senate on track for a vote to confirm Kagan — which for now appears likely given Democrats' decisive Senate majority — before senators depart for a monthlong August vacation.

The hearings will give Republicans and Democrats a chance to grill Kagan on her legal views and judicial philosophy, but for now, her files offer some clues as to the kind of person they'll meet when she sits down at the witness table.

She's a serious legal scholar, but one who at least publicly tries not to take herself too seriously.

At a luncheon in Washington earlier this month, she joked that people sometimes confused her job as solicitor general with that of the surgeon general — "the person who put those warnings on cigarette labels" — or with a military rank.

Instead, the "general" in her title refers to the kind of matters she handles on the government's behalf, she explained, quipping, "Calling me General Kagan makes about as much sense as calling me Comprehensive Kagan. But I kind of like the title anyway."

As dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan often used her welcome speech to first-year law students to urge the young crop of overachievers to take a breath and enjoy themselves. "Relax. Have fun," she said in one such speech in 2007. "The competition is over. Here's the really cool thing: You've won."

From her advice to government interns last summer, it's possible to gain some insight into what Kagan looks for in a job, and how she's tried to shape her own career.

"Do what you love — always do what you love," she told the audience, rather than spending years simply "checking boxes" to reach a goal. And Kagan spoke passionately about public service, saying those jobs "are the ones that fill people over the course of their careers with the greatest degree of satisfaction," and let people feel "they're making a positive contribution for the world and making a difference."

In her public statements and writings, Kagan — who has degrees from Princeton, Harvard and Oxford universities — often comes across as extraordinarily confident in her own abilities. But in a question-and-answer session with the summer interns last year, she betrayed a hint of nervousness about appearing before the Supreme Court for the first time.

"Four weeks from Wednesday — not that I'm counting — will be my first argument as solicitor general and also my first argument at the Supreme Court," according to video of her appearance submitted with the files.

Still, she has been studying the court she's seeking to join for decades. Her 1983 master's thesis from Oxford hints that Kagan — at least at one time — did not believe in the kind of liberal judicial activism that some of her GOP critics fear will motivate her as a justice.

She criticized the Supreme Court under Justice Earl Warren's leadership for poorly reasoned rulings on criminal law, writing that decisions "should be based upon legal principle and reason." Instead, she suggested the Warren court was intent on reaching certain conclusions "to correct the social injustices and inequalities of American life" — even if it meant taking legal shortcuts to get there.

Years later at Harvard, Kagan was still weighing in on big issues, including staking out her much-discussed position against the military's prohibition on openly gay soldiers, and teaching courses on the principles of constitutional law.

But she was also consumed with the more routine aspects of an academic administrator's job, such as e-mailing students to wish them a happy Thanksgiving, tell them about a water conservation initiative and tout the opening of an ice skating rink in the dead of winter.

In a message to students, Kagan said she was announcing the opening of the rink "in the spirit of trying to make lemonade out of lemons," and gently jabbed at rival Stanford Law School, writing, "They can't do this in Palo Alto, you know."

Kagan asked students in a 2008 speech to use water containers provided by the school rather than buying disposable bottles as part of the school's green initiative. "I feel a little like Oprah here," she said. "Though I guess if this were Oprah, we'd be giving you a Prius instead of a water container."


Associated Press Writer Mark Sherman contributed to this report.