U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan speaks at Cal

Big applause greeted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who spoke at U.C. Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall Monday in a conversation about her career and working with fellow Supreme Court Justices at a time when the nation faces deep partisan divisions.

Kagan sat down with Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky after spending the day at U.C. Berkeley Law School having breakfast with a group of about one hundred students, meeting faculty, and even teaching a class. 

"She's now the Ninth Circuit, Circuit Justice, which means she comes out to the West Coast regularly to meet with the Ninth circuit judges, many who are located in SF," said Amanda Tyler, a professor at U.C. Berkeley Law School. 

"She started the day having breakfast with our students. We had about 100 students who were picked by  lottery," said Tyler. 

Justice Kagan said, she'd never planned to follow her father's path into law. 

"It never struck me that what he did was all that exciting," said Kagan.

She told the crowd, though, she was eventually drawn into the legal profession for the intellectual challenge and the ability to bring justice to people's lives.

She encouraged students to take risks and be open to new opportunities, explaining how her disappointments such as losing a federal bench appointment at age 39, led to other successes, such as becoming Harvard law school's first female dean, a Solicitor General under the Obama administration, and eventually a Supreme Court Justice. 

"When a door closes, a window opens and sometimes the things you wanted, it turns out you're better off not getting them," said Kagan.

She also shared a story about arguing her first case, Citizens United, before the Supreme Court.

"Justice Scalia leaned over the bench and said "Wait, wait, wait, wait," four times. And then he proceeded to tell me that everything I had just said was wrong. And I think it was actually a great thing to do," said Kagan, "When somebody challenges you like that you just have to get back at them." 

"I think I owe a lot to Justice Scalia. Justice Scalia has an argumentative style, but it's also a style that let's you answer," said Kagan, who added that she had been close to the late conservative justice, "The kinds of questions he would ask you were very direct, very hard, but he give you a chance to answer them."

Justice Kagan said she's learned the importance of trying to see issues from someone else's viewpoint and says there is camaraderie among the justices behind closed doors, despite the nation's political divides. 
"I like all my current colleagues and feel close to many of them," said Kagan, "There are great friendships on the court that are between people who often disagree on legal matters." 

"I guess I feel it perplexing this idea that you can't like a person whom you disagree with strenuously, even on important matters," she said, "There's more to people than what they think about issues. People can be warm and kind and generous and caring and all the good things you want a person to be even if they don't agree with you."

"Whether it's on the court or anything else," said Kagan, "The ability to get to know somebody well enough so that you can step into that person's shoes and see the world a little bit from their vantage point is very helpful if you're hoping to convince them." 

Dean Chemerinsky asked Justice Kagan what has surprised her about sitting on the nation's highest court. 

She responded saying that when the justices convene behind closed doors, the conversation about the legal issues is of the highest level. She also said that the past court session showed that while some cases had a 5-4 split between so-called conservative and liberal justices, there were also times when justices aligned in unexpected ways.

"I do think if you look at the court's work, like let's say last term, what you find much more of is people who did unexpected things on cases that came out in unexpected ways," said Kagan. 

Some law students said they felt Justice Kagan could have spoken more about their concerns regarding perceived partisanship on the court and the controversy surrounding Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation.

"It's how partisan the court has become and some of the crisis of confidence the public has in the court," said Mohsin Mirza, a second-year Berkeley Law School student.

"Whether we want to admit it or not, our life experiences shape who we are and they also shape our biases, our interactions with our colleagues and our ideological commitment," said Luna Martinez, another Berkeley Law School student.

Justice Kagan said she believes it is important for the Supreme Court to keep people's faith in the judicial process. 

"It's the thing that really upholding the rule of law in this country. So I take your question very seriously and I think the Court should take the question very seriously," Kagan said to one student, adding "Don't despair."