Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing: Cocktail Chatter

Cynthia Dermody

US Supreme Court building
Flickr photo by D3 San Francisco
Every week, we tell you what you need to know to sound like an expert at this weekend's play date, dinner party, or post office encounter.

This week's cheat sheet: The US Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing to decide if Elena Kagan, President Obama's pick for an upcoming vacancy, gets a seat on the nation's highest judicial bench.

What it is: Think of it as a really big job interview -- with half the world watching. But it only really matters what the Senate Judiciary Committee (SJC), the group of senators who run the interview in one of the senate's big hearing rooms, thinks in the end.

Because Kagan has served mainly in academia and government positions and has never worked as a judge, the committee will ask the 50-year-old solicitor general lots of questions to try to get a sense of her ideology and how she might vote on critical issues.

But they can't come out and ask her that point blank. Running for judge isn't the same as running for political office, where you promise to do this or that in exchange for votes. She can't -- and shouldn't -- show her cards on issues that are or may come before the court when she hasn't heard the facts of a specific case yet.

After the questioning, which could go on for weeks, the committee votes on whether the nomination should go to the full Senate with a positive, negative, or neutral report. Then the Senate, by simple majority, votes to confirm or deny.

When it will happen:

SJC Chairman Patrick Leahy said he won't schedule Kagan's hearing until she returns a questionnaire, asking for information from her tenure as solicitor general and domestic policy adviser during the Clinton presidency. Once received, her answers will be made public at the Senate Judiciary Committee website.

Terms to know:

Solicitor general: Kagan's current position in the Obama administration. She's basically the federal government's lawyer.

SCOTUS: Acronym for Supreme Court of the Unites States

Judicial record: When you serve as a judge on any bench, all your rulings become part of the public record, a road map for how you lean on the issues. Kagan, who worked as a private attorney, as Dean of Harvard Law School, and in government service, has none.

Names you'll hear:

James Inhofe: Arch-conservative Republican from Arkansas. The first member of the SJC to oppose Kagan's nomination based on what he says is a "lack of judicial record" and some "poor decisions" she made while at Harvard, including her role in a lawsuit that helped to overturn an amendment allowing military recruiters access to college campuses.

Patrick Leahy: SJC chairman, Democrat Senator from Vermont, who supports Kagan's nomination.

Jeff Sessions: The Ranking Member of the SJC, and a Republican who's also publicly cast doubt on Kagan's qualifications.

John Paul Stevens: The oldest member of the court who's retiring at the end of the 2010 term, leaving the vacancy sought by Kagan.

John Roberts: The chief justice. There are eight associate justices seated along with him.

Phrases to drop:

"People say she won't answer any questions."

"She worked for Clinton and convinced him to ban late-term abortions in 1997."

"Do you think she's gay? Does it matter?"

"Do you think her lack of experience will hold her back?"

"That whole Thurgood Marshall/Constitution comment thing was taken out of context."

"Elena Kagan and King of Queens star Kevin James -- separated at birth?"

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