Obama Picks Harvard Law Dean For Solicitor General

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As solicitor general, Elena Kagan will be responsible for arguing on behalf of the United States before the U.S. Supreme Court, often referred to as the "10th justice."

Several solicitors general have been named to the high court, including Robert Bork, whose appointment by Ronald Reagan was rejected by the Senate, and Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the nation's first African American supreme court justice.

Clerking for Justice Marshall is one of the many prestigious positions Kagan has held, before becoming dean of Harvard Law School in the summer of 2003. Harvard Law School professor Charles Fried, who was solicitor general himself in the 1980s, says Kagan brings many skills to Washington.

CHARLES FRIED: She's tough, and interesting, and well paced, and knows her subjects very well, and her subjects are constitutional law and administrative law, and that's the game.

BROWN: Before arriving at Harvard, Kagan was on the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School, teaching alongside Barack Obama. She also served in the Clinton White House as an associate counsel to the president, and a deputy assistant for domestic policy. Her one-time colleague in the Clinton administration, Washington attorney Jamie Gorelick, calls Kagan's selection a "spectacular" appointment.

JAMIE GORELICK: Elena is a brilliant lawyer, a wonderful advocate, a broad thinker, and knows the policy arena very well and those are all qualities that we're going to need going forward.

BROWN: At an award presentation in October, Kagan spoke about the school she's led for the past five years.

ELENA KAGAN: You know Harvard Law School is blessed, to have students that are going to go out and change the world, and it's a good thing if they change it for the better. And it's a good thing if they serve the people who need help the most.

BROWN: Although one Harvard law professor said Kagan has pushed the school's hiring process too fast, Kagan is credited with improving the atmosphere for most students and faculty. Current Harvard Law Review president Bob Allen says she's accomplished two overarching goals at the school.

BOB ALLEN: First, she's put together a fantastic faculty. I'd say one that's unparalleled, in any law school, anytime. The second thing is she's really turned Harvard Law School's mentality around. It's a much warmer place, more friendly, people have a better time, I think people are happier, both faculty and students.

BROWN: As for the challenges that would face Kagan as solicitor general, attorney Gorelick says the major ones would be the issue of the president's power in national security, and the constitutional rights of citizens and non citizens.

GORELICK: If the incoming president, puts on the table new programs that could be challenged as outside of his authority, that's another area that we will see some heavy lifting by the solicitor general, as you saw during the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, and just the whole host of issues. One of the things that a solicitor general needs to be is broad gauged, and Elena Kagan is.

BROWN: Kagan's appointment must be confirmed by the senate.

This program aired on January 6, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.