WASHINGTON (Reuters) - With a series of quips and nimble sidesteps, U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan deflected tough Republican questions on her views and judgment on Wednesday and sailed toward likely Senate confirmation.
During three days of hearings, Kagan coolly turned aside Republican criticism she would be a rubberstamp for President Barack Obama’s political agenda, without revealing much of her own opinions about the court or its decisions.
Kagan’s performance in the Judiciary Committee drew praise from Democrats and compliments even from some critics, putting her on a path to confirmation by the full Senate sometime in July.
“She will be confirmed. I believe she will be confirmed,” said Republican Orrin Hatch, a member of the Judiciary Committee, predicting there would be at least some Republican support.
He said there was little chance Republicans would use a Senate procedure known as a filibuster to try to block her nomination. Republican Senator John Cornyn referred to her as “soon-to-be Justice Kagan.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and Kagan’s leading critic, complained about her refusal to divulge her views on major court cases but complimented her performance.
“We see her gifts and graces; in many ways those are revealed in her humor and her knowledge,” Sessions said as the third day of hearings began.
But he said her testimony left it difficult to know “whether you’d be more like John Roberts or more like Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Chief Justice Roberts leads the court’s conservative bloc, while Ginsburg is usually a member of its liberal wing.
Kagan, 50, would replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens on the top court, whose nine members serve for life and rule on cases touching most aspects of American life including abortion, religion and gun rights.
Her confirmation would not tilt the ideological balance of the sharply divided court. She would fill Stevens’ slot as one of four liberals facing five conservatives led by Roberts.
But it would represent a political victory for Obama months before November’s congressional elections, giving him his second appointment to the court after last summer’s Senate confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor.
The nomination of Kagan, Obama’s solicitor general and a former Harvard law school dean, has sparked little controversy compared to past nominees and her hearing was largely devoid of drama.
Republicans led by Sessions criticized Kagan for her decision to limit access to military recruiters at Harvard law school when she was dean because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays, which prevents them from serving openly in the armed forces.
But Kagan said the military retained access to Harvard the entire time she was dean, and Sessions appeared to make little headway on the issue.
“I think your actions were not consistent with the law,” Sessions told her as she concluded 16 hours of testimony over two days.
He said he was “uneasy” about her records and statements. The committee is not expected to vote on the confirmation until after the July 4 holiday.
Kagan, who told senators the hearing had been one of the highlights of her life, frequently displayed a nimble wit and disarming manner that clearly impressed some Republicans. “She’s very smart, likable, articulate,” Hatch told reporters.
“As it said in the paper today, you kind of ‘light up the room,’ and I agree with that,” said Republican Tom Coburn, one of the panel’s most conservative members.
Asked by Republican Lindsey Graham where she was on Christmas Day, when a failed plane bombing threatened U.S. lives, Kagan responded: “Like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.”
The remark drew roars of laughter from the hearing room and assembled senators.
Pressed by Republican Charles Grassley to explain comments in her Oxford thesis, Kagan said she did not know anything about the law when she wrote it because she had not been to law school.
“You’ve learned a lot by going to law school. I‘m not sure I say that to very many people,” Grassley said.
Kagan, who as solicitor general represents the government in cases before the court, repeatedly refused to characterize the current members or the court’s decisions.
“I‘m sure everyone up there is acting in good faith,” she told Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse when he criticized the court for a recent series of narrow 5-4 rulings he said were “driving the law in a new direction.”
Senators from both parties decried the lack of opinions from Kagan, who once wrote a book review calling confirmation hearings a charade because of the lack of specific answers.
“Perhaps you haven’t answered much of anything,” Democratic Senator Arlen Specter said after failing to draw out Kagan on several topics.
Kagan offered praise during the hearing for conservative Justice Antonin Scalia and her conservative law school friend Miguel Estrada, whose appeals court nomination by former President George W. Bush was blocked in 2003 by Senate Democrats in a clash that still rankles Republicans.
Democrats were clearly thrilled with her performance.
“Even the other side would have to admit you have a wonderfully well-ordered mind,” Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said.
Editing by Alan Elsner