Third Jew may join the US Supreme Court

By Nathan Guttman, May 13, 2010
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Elena Kagan stands with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as she is introduced as Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court on Monday

Elena Kagan stands with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden as she is introduced as Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court on Monday

If Elena Kagan, President Obama's choice for the US Supreme Court, is confirmed by the Senate, it will be the first time three woman justices are in the Supreme Court at the same time.

For the US Jewish community, Ms Kagan's appointment is another landmark. She will be the third Jew sitting Supreme Court justice, joining Ruth Bader-Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

The religious affiliation of judicial nominees is seldom discussed in the US and when touched it is dealt with extremely delicately. But with Ms Kagan's nomination, the discussion became public, not so much because of her Jewish faith, but rather due to the religious makeup of America's highest court. With Ms Kagan replacing retiring justice John Paul Stevens, the Supreme Court will have six Catholic and three Jewish members - and no representative of the Protestant church, America's largest religious denomination.

Leading Protestant scholars downplayed the court's new religious make-up, saying the notion of America as a "Protestant nation" has not been dominant for years.

Most experts agree that the reason for Catholic and Jewish over-representation on the Supreme Court bench is their tendency to study law at America's leading universities, which serve as a breeding ground for top judicial positions. Evangelicals, members of one of the fastest growing denominations in the United States, have traditionally steered clear of academic law schools.

The first Jewish justice on the Supreme Court was Louis Brandeis in 1916. Since then there were six other Jewish justices, with Ms Kagan, if confirmed, being the seventh.

Elena Kagan, 50, grew up in New York's Upper West Side. She had her batmitzvah at a Conservative synagogue but it is not clear if she is currently affiliated to any Jewish synagogue.

Jewish groups praised the choice of Ms Kagan for the high post, not because of her faith but rather due to her legal ideology. Ms Kagan holds liberal views that are shared by most of the mainstream community and has worked in the past with Jewish groups on issues of civil and religious liberties.

For Jewish groups, Ms Kagan's nomination would make little difference in the short term, since she will not tip the balance between liberals and conservatives on the bench. Jewish activists are mainly focused on maintaining the constitutional separation between Church and state, reserving religious liberties, immigrants' rights and social justice. Ms Kagan, according to her public statements in the past, is a strong supporter of all these issues.

Last updated: 2:05pm, May 13 2010