WASHINGTON — Reaching out to potential converts, Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan is dropping carefully calculated hints about her judicial approach on issues ranging from political speech to national security.
Kagan isn't revealing much as she plods through a painstaking series of Capitol Hill meetings with the senators whose backing she needs for confirmation. But the 50-year-old solicitor general — who's never been a judge — has weighed in cautiously on several issues as she strives to paint a fuller picture of what kind of a justice she might be.
Take, for example, her closed-door exchange last week with Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., who voted against Kagan's nomination to her current job last year on the grounds she wouldn't talk about her legal views.
Kagan divulged that she disagreed with Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a recent Supreme Court ruling that has provoked intense partisan debate, according to Specter. She criticized the Court's ruling upholding the First Amendment rights of corporations and labor unions to spend money on campaign ads, thus enhancing their ability to influence federal elections.
As solicitor general, Kagan argued the government’s case before the high court.
"She said she thought the Court was not sufficiently deferential to Congress," Specter said.
The Senate's top Republican is criticizing Kagan for backing limits on the ability of corporations and labor unions to influence elections.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Kagan's argument as solicitor general in Citizens United was "troubling to those who cherish free speech."
McConnell says he needs to be convinced Kagan is committed to free-speech rights.
In commenting on a case, Kagan was breaking with tradition. Judicial nominees, particularly for the high court, rarely if ever weigh in on a ruling — much less a recent, highly controversial one — on the grounds that it could come before them in the future.
But her stated gripe had little to do with the politically charged debate over the ruling, which President Barack Obama has blasted as giving corporations power to warp elections and which Republicans have praised. Instead, Kagan couched her criticism in terms of the principle that the Supreme Court should defer to Congress.
Her position was sure to appeal to Democrats and middle-of-the-road Republicans who oppose the ruling, but might also appeal to conservatives who favor judicial restraint.
"You have to walk a thin line down the middle," said Tom Korologos, a veteran chaperone of Republican nominees to the high court.
Kagan, whom Obama named to replace retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, is for now on a smooth road to confirmation this summer. Democrats have more than enough votes to push through Kagan's nomination, and Republicans — seven of whom backed her for her current job — appear to have little appetite for mounting a filibuster to try to block her.
Still, like any good politician, Kagan is working to shore up her base and reach out to waverers in the middle, using charm and ingratiating comments to smooth her way.
Knowing that Specter bristled at her previous reticence, Kagan showed up at his office last week prepared to be chattier. She commiserated with him over how difficult it can be to get straight answers out of Supreme Court nominees, standing by an article she wrote in 1995 that criticized the process as a "charade."
Kagan also has positioned herself as a moderate. Faced with GOP charges that she'd be a liberal "rubber stamp" for Obama, the nominee has said there's at least one area in which she agrees with the Court's conservative majority.
Kagan told Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that she thinks the Court is on the right track in its rulings on national security and presidential powers.
"She said that she thought that the Court was moving in the right direction in a difficult era when we are truly dealing with the threat of terrorism," Durbin said.
First Amendment Center Online staff contributed to this report.