U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan talked Monday in Minneapolis about protocol in the court's "black box," why no one should aspire to become a justice and learning to hunt and shoot with the late Justice Antonin Scalia.
As she sat down on the stage with law professor Robert Stein for the question-and-answer session, Kagan squinted out at the near-capacity crowd of 2,700 in Northrop auditorium at the University of Minnesota, and said, "There are a lot of people here. My gosh."
Stein, who funds the lecture and for whom it is named, opened by asking Kagan what she likes about the job she has held since President Barack Obama appointed her in 2010. "It's hard not to love the job," she said, adding that she's surrounded by "colleagues who are phenomenally good lawyers and good people."
The hour was a mostly casual, broad conversation about the court and the justices. The crowd laughed with the thoughtful, playful Kagan, who described herself as the middle-of-the-pack in terms of humor on the high court.
"There are four other justices who could be sitting in this chair and you would be laughing harder," she said, adding that after the well-known wit Scalia died, Justice Stephen Breyer supplanted him as the funniest justice by "a mile."
She talked about what happens when justices go into conference in the "black box" to dissect cases and shape opinions. No staff members join them nor do they bring laptops. The nine of them just talk, she said.
Stein asked whether pointedly critical dissents cause friction in personal relationships among the justices.
She said the whole notion of dissent is to provide an alternative viewpoint and that should be "as powerful as you can make it," she said.
On such opinions, Kagan tends to be among the four in the minority that also includes Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Stein asked her what the court can do to minimize the perception that it's just another polarized political body whose members line up with the president who nominated them.
Of the court's 80 cases per year, half of them are decided unanimously, she said. Another 35 percent are "lopsided or scrambled" in no discernible pattern, she said.
As for those where the justices divide on political lines, Kagan said, "We just have different views."
At one point, Stein critiqued media coverage of the court as simplistic. Kagan responded with praise for the media and said, "I'm not going to go along with your aspersions on the press."
In part of the session, Kagan encouraged students by talking about her disappointments, including poor grades in her first semester of law school. Looking at her résumé now, she said it looks like a direct path to the court, but it was strewn with disappointments.
She was a finalist for the presidency at Harvard, but didn't get the job. If she had, she said she wouldn't be on the Supreme Court. Instead, she was tapped to be the U.S. solicitor general under Obama, which led eventually to her court nomination.
A court appointment involves so much luck, it's a "lightning strike," she said.
"I don't think it's the kind of thing somebody can say, 'I aspire to be a Supreme Court justice,' " she said, then added advice that drew laughs, "It's like, don't."
Prompted by Stein, she confirmed that she did learn to shoot a rifle and hunt with Scalia.
"I'm from New York City. We don't really go hunting on the weekend," she said.
When she asked Scalia to take her, Kagan said he laughed and said, "let's go."
They hunted birds and ducks and even went to Wyoming to hunt "big game," she said, punching with her right fist as she said it in playful bravura.
She did not divulge — and Stein didn't ask — what she bagged.
As for Scalia, she said, "I just loved him to death."
Her highest praise went to the justice for whom she clerked as a young lawyer: the late Thurgood Marshall, whom she called the greatest lawyer of the 20th century.
As a lawyer he handled all sorts of cases, working across the segregated South to dismantle Jim Crow laws and fought for black defendants in front of all-white juries. He argued 18 cases before the Supreme Court and won most of them, she said.
Marshall "was the best storyteller I have ever known in my life — hands down."