More on Kagan’s Supreme Ambition. Can Kagan kick her ideas into high gear after decades of inactivity?

May 11th, 2010

David Brooks has an interesting piece in the New York Times on Kagan and her life long quest to become a Justice.

Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable. “She was one of the most strategic people I’ve ever met, and that’s true across lots of aspects of her life,” John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor, told The Times. “She is very effective at playing her cards in every setting I’ve seen.”

Kagan has apparently wanted to be a judge or justice since adolescence (she posed in judicial robes for her high school yearbook). There was a brief period, in her early 20s, when she expressed opinions on legal and political matters. But that seems to have ended pretty quickly.

But at what cost did she undertake this career?

She has become a legal scholar without the interest scholars normally have in the contest of ideas. She’s shown relatively little interest in coming up with new theories or influencing public debate.

What we have is a person whose career has dovetailed with the incentives presented by the confirmation system, a system that punishes creativity and rewards caginess. Arguments are already being made for and against her nomination, but most of this is speculation because she has been too careful to let her actual positions leak out.

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

As I previously noted, Kagan has had to hide her personal beliefs for so long, I wonder whether she still actually possesses them. Creating ideas and developing scholarship are like any activity; you get better with practice. Although she has published a few articles (See Eugene Volokh’s good summary), her output pales in comparison to other big idea academics who have joined the Federal bench.

Only time will tell if Kagan can kick it into high gear, after being stalled in neutral, or maybe first gear, for so long.