Berkeley Talks: Justice Elena Kagan on taking risks, finding common ground

Read the transcript.

Subscribe to Berkeley Talks.

Elena Kagan and Erwin Chemerinsky talk on stage in front of an audience

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan talks with Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky on Monday, Sept. 23, in Zellerbach Hall. (UC Berkeley photo by Jim Block)

“Law students are too risk-averse. There’s too much planning and too little jumping in. You should experiment.” That’s U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan in conversation with Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky on Monday, Sept. 23 in Zellerbach Hall.

“I think sometimes people look at my resume like mine, and they think, ‘Oh, it’s just like this golden life.’ What you’re seeing are the jobs I got. What you’re not seeing are all the jobs I didn’t get … when a door closes, a window opens. Sometimes the things that you think you wanted, it turns out that you’re better off not getting them.”

Kagan began her career as a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, leaving to serve as Associate White House Counsel and later as policy adviser under President Bill Clinton. She then became a professor at Harvard Law School, and in 2003 was named its dean, its first woman dean. In 2009, she became Solicitor General of the United States, the officer responsible for representing the federal government before the Supreme Court. And in 2010, President Barack Obama nominated her to the Supreme Court itself to fill the vacancy arising from the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens.

During the conversation, Kagan discussed the mutual respect among justices and their shared passion for the law.

“I find it perplexing that you can’t like someone you disagree with, even on important matters,” she added. “I was extremely close to Justice Scalia, and spent the past few days writing a foreword for a book of his opinions. I like all my colleagues and feel close to many of them. There’s more to people than what they think about issues.”

This talk was recorded by Educational Technology Services. Read more and watch a video of the conversation on Berkeley Law.