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Tale of two Elena Kagans at confirmation hearings

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan smiles on as

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan smiles on as she takes her seat on Capitol Hill in Washington. (June 28, 2010) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON - Elena Kagan strode into the Senate hearing on her nomination to the Supreme Court with a broad grin and a bounce in her step.

And then she planted herself, stone-faced, before the senators of the Judiciary Committee to hear a Republican rundown of everything that’s wrong with her.

Those GOP digs were interspersed with effusive praise from Democrats for whom she could do no wrong.

To those hearty souls who tuned in to C-SPAN on Monday it must have sounded like a tale of two Kagans.

Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the panel, previewed the GOP lines of attack — reaching all the way back to her college thesis on socialism, which he said “seems to bemoan socialism’s demise.” Iowa’s Chuck Grassley said she’d been a “political lawyer.” Arizona’s Jon Kyl complained about her choice of judicial heroes. Utah’s Orrin Hatch wondered aloud if she would be controlled by the Constitution or try to control it.

For every GOP thrust, there was a Democratic parry.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont called her legal credentials “unassailable.” California’s Dianne Feinstein called her lack of experience as a judge “refreshing.” Sen. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin spoke of her “thoughtfulness and openness.” Sen. Charles Schumer said her “brilliant” record was clear and complete, declaring: “The only thing as far as I can tell that we don’t have is her kindergarten report card.”

It was a low-key beginning to hearings that are expected to end with approval of Kagan’s nomination, barring unforeseen revelations or major missteps on her part.

While senators stuck largely to the expected script, a small band of protesters tried to liven things up in the withering heat outside, demonstrating against both Kagan’s nomination and Republican senators for not fighting her with more gusto.

Anti-abortion activist Randall Terry escorted a dancing chicken around to jab at Republicans’ apparent unwillingness to filibuster Kagan. With Terry helpfully interpreting the chicken’s squawks, the big bird explained that Republicans “don’t think they have the votes and they don’t want to have egg on their faces.”

The chicken turned out to be a multi-tasker. His yellow suit was stuffed into a knapsack, and the chicken quickly transformed himself into a black-hooded grim reaper. Randall and the reaper headed over to the Supreme Court to protest Justice John Paul Stevens’ last day on the bench.

The heat didn’t deter a a few hundred civic-minded Americans from queuing up outside the Capitol for a seat in the hearing room. Audrey Smith, a homemaker from Calverton, Md., was up at 4:30 a.m. to take the bus and subway downtown to see “a woman who’s going to take the seat of a man on the Supreme Court.”

“I’m for women progressing,” she explained.

Not far behind her in line was 20-year-old Matthew Simari, a political science student from Wake Forest University doing research in Washington this summer on the media and politics. He was hopeful for a few more fireworks than during last year’s hearings on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan is “probably the sassiest” of recent nominees, he said. “She’s very opinionated.”

But pressed on whether he really expected Kagan to really let loose, Simari predicted, “To be honest, she’ll probably keep quiet” on contentious issues.

“You always kind of feel cheated by these things,” he said.

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