Justice Elena Kagan talks pro bono service with ABA president

Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan spoke out about her worries that the public could view the court as politicized, the influences on her career and the importance of pro bono service during a wide-ranging discussion with American Bar Association President Bob Carlson.

   ABA President Bob Carlson and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan

ABA President Bob Carlson and U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan

As dean of Harvard Law School from 2003-09, Kagan said she learned by meeting alumni that lawyers can do pro bono work in very different ways ­– full time, in smaller and larger increments as career trajectories allow, and through philanthropy. Opportunities to make a difference abound, “and that’s a great thing about the legal profession,” she said.

Kagan also said the court needs to “protect” its “extraordinary” standing with the American public that enables it to believe in the Supreme Court and follow its decisions.

In a typical year, she said, the court rules unanimously in about half of its cases, while about one-third of them have an overwhelming majority. The court is closely split only in about 10 to 15 percent of its cases. When the court’s rulings are close, “it’s not because we’re partisan in the way that people in Congress are partisan,” Kagan said. “It’s because we have certain judicial philosophies, thoughts about how to interpret the Constitution, thoughts about how to interpret statutes.”

Kagan said that if the public were to view such splits as partisan, it would be “very damaging for the court and what it does in our society.”  

The Oct. 24 event at the Georgetown University Law Center was held in honor of the 10th anniversary of the National Celebration of Pro Bono. The National Celebration began in 2009 to showcase pro bono service. In the 10 years since, more than 7,000 events have taken place in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and Canada.

Kagan is the honorary chair of the 2018 National Celebration, which ran Oct. 21-27.

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