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May. 11 2010 - 4:29 pm | 1,009 views | 0 recommendations | 10 comments

The obsession with Kagan’s ‘careerism’ is more than a little sexist


It’s been a day since President Obama nominated Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, and the battle lines have mostly been drawn. But if there’s one thing the nation’s pundits can agree on, it’s that she is a brazen careerist. Here’s David Brooks who likens Kagan to the “Organization Kids” that are concerned with advancing through the ranks:

“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.”

Jonathan Zasloff is a bit kinder, but not by much:

Consider that Kagan first got tenure at the University of Chicago based on two articles — which usually is what that notoriously overachieving faculty wants in one year from a junior professor. Then she got an academic chair at Harvard based on one more piece, Presidential Administration. She wrote nothing else for more than two years at Harvard. And then she was appointed Dean. This shows that Kagan may not be a great scholar, but she is enormously skilled at impressing older colleagues.

And of course, Glenn Greenwald has been calling out Kagan’s “careerism” since it became clear that she was a leading contender for the nomination.

Now, to some degree, this is all true. Kagan has an extremely thin paper trail, and her five published articles are all technical and non-ideological. She’s been careful not to take a strong stance on politically sensitive issues, and even her close friends aren’t sure about her views on constitutional law. Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog describes her as “extraordinarily — almost artistically — careful. I don’t know anyone who has had a conversation with her in which she expressed a personal conviction on a question of constitutional law in the past decade.”

My question for Kagan’s critics is this: where were you when John Roberts was nominated to the court? To borrow from Matt Yglesias, I think you can easily analogize Kagan to John Roberts. Not only was he young (fifty years old), ideologically reliable and bereft o fa paper trail, he was also a straightforward careerist. Like Kagan, he attended Harvard Law School and went on to work in ideologically friendly environments. He clerked for William Rehnquist and took a position in the Attorney General’s office during the Reagan administration. He worked in private practice for a time, but soon went on to serve in the George H.W. Bush administration as Principal Deputy Solicitor General from 1989 to 1993. In 2003, he was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals by George W. Bush.

As far as I can remember, there wasn’t nearly the amount of criticism surrounding Roberts’ equally meteoric rise. Roberts was seen for what he was, the product of an absurd confirmation system, and his deliberately strategic careerwasn’t held against him. By contrast, Kagan has been pilloried for following a virtually identical path. Like the “lesbian” charge, I think the careerist charge — or at least, the constant harping on Kagan’s “careerism” — has everything to do with the fact that she is an ambitious, powerful woman. Hillary Clinton has long been subject to similar criticisms, as have other powerful, political women. I don’t mean for this to be a blanket accusation, but the constant criticism of Kagan’s “careerism” seems more than a little sexist.

Photo credit: Doug Mills/The New York Times


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  1. collapse expand

    Of course the criticism against Kagan is blatantly sexist. And Roberts is a primary example. To represent the American people fairly and equally, the SCOTUS must have either 4-5 women justices; and there are many, including Kagan that are very qualified, more so than many of the male counterparts that have been nominated. I will be delighted when Kagan is confirmed.

  2. collapse expand

    It is really hard to know if people would say the same things were she a man, but I agree that this kind of criticism is most often targeted at women. But to really examine the sexism we must look at the aggregate of all such charges and see if there is any trend that goes beyond our own casual observations. I would not be shocked to find one.

    But beyond being a criticism that would have less sting were she a man, it’s also not a very substantive criticism. I read the column by Brooks and I couldn’t understand what he was talking about. He seemed to take good qualities like, not jumping to conclusions and not trumping radical opinions and make them out to be negatives. Her achievements, rather than simply being evidence of her intelligence and leadership qualities, are instead taken to be faults. I mean…

    I’m not in love with the SCOTUS pick but seriously WTF? What do these people want? If she has an option it’s the wrong one, or she’s a hot head for speaking out– If she is judiciously quiet she just a grade-grubbing careerist…

  3. collapse expand

    Roberts was, and is, an exceedingly ambitious and vain main, but it was utterly obvious to any minimally curious person what his judicial philosophy was. Whether you agreed with it or not (and to be clear, I personally couldn’t care less) Roberts had clearly and consistently defended his views for several years on a high-profile circuit court

    Kagan’s philosophy, however, seems to be utterly and entirely absent: she seems to have been able to accomplish the singularly impressive feat of passing judgment on NONE of the important legal and political issues of the past 20 years. That, and not her gender, is why I consider her a careerist, because she deliberately refrained from saying anything of consequence so that she might more easily sit on the Supreme Court.

    I’m not a progressive (I’m not anything) but if I were I’d be pretty pissed that Obama thought so little of me that he’d nominate a complete blank slate to such an important office. But by all means, keep attacking people for their sexism, I’m sure it’ll work out great.

    • collapse expand

      Two things:

      1) It’s always useful to distinguish between “sexist” people and “sexist” things. I am not calling you “sexist,” but given the heightened “careerist” criticism thrown at Kagan, it’s not unreasonable to wonder if there might be a double-standard.

      2) While it’s obvious that she hasn’t said anything substantive on major issues of constitutional law, I don’t buy that she’s a “blank slate.” She has spent most of her adult life working in technocratic Democratic presidential administrations. That alone should say something about her ideological orientation, namely, that she is probably a technocratic liberal in the mold of Obama or Clinton.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I’d rather see a blank slate (which I don’t think is true of Kagan) than a slate cast in concrete which is obvious when you see the 5-4 decisions across party lines — particularly, the 2000 (s)election.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    “My question for Kagan’s critics is this: where were you when John Roberts was nominated to the court?”

    Some of us were screaming that we were replacing one of the folks who actually demonstrated principled opposition to expansion of government power in the case of Gonzales v. Raich (and, by extension, to Wickard v. Filburn) with someone who would, once again, rule in favor of government expansion again, every time.

    Hell, we yelled that when Alito was nominated to replace O’Connor.

    We were yelling that Janice Rogers Brown would have made a much stronger nominee in both cases.

    Now we get to watch the people who were oh-so-principled in their opposition to Roberts and Alito suddenly point out how, hey, it’s their turn to nominate someone who wants to expand government power each and every time it makes it to the Supreme Court.

  5. collapse expand

    The careerist charges are clearly sexist. That does not make Kagan any less dangerous.

    Another business-friendly terror warrior on the high court is pretty much the last thing we need now don’t you think?

  6. collapse expand

    Two women on the court are enough….and it is time to limit court duties to 4 years and let the people elect these idiots

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    I am a blogger and occasional freelance writer. Usually, you'll find me here, but I occasionally contribute to PostBourgie.com, as well as Spencer Ackerman's blog (when he's away). At my old Wordpress digs, I blogged about progressive politics, public policy, nerdy things and food, and here at True/Slant, I intend to do the same. I'm all about the social media, so feel free to follow me on Twitter: jbouie, or friend me on Facebook (though I might make you wait awhile). And if you'd rather avoid social media, you can always email me at jamelle DOT bouie AT gmail DOT com.

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