U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan came to Louisville Oct. 24 to accept the Brandeis School of Law’s Brandeis Medal. She addressed a group of mostly-UofL faculty, staff, students and alumni at the Brown and Williamson Club, Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium.
Kagan told the audience of about 350 that while she wasn’t entirely sure she was going to like law school, she ended up loving it.
“From the first week, I knew I just loved studying and thinking about law,” she said. “The most important thing, I think, about law school is that it teaches you how to think.”
The Brandeis Medal is the law school’s highest honor. It recognizes those who reflect ideals similar to those of Justice Louis Brandeis: individual liberty, concern for the disadvantaged and the importance of public service.
Law school Dean Susan Duncan said this year is especially important for the law school because it marks the 100th anniversary of the nomination and confirmation of the school’s namesake, Louis D. Brandeis.
“In addition to tracing her seat on the Supreme Court to Justice Brandeis, her work in the areas of individual freedoms, equal opportunity and human rights reflects his life’s values,” Duncan said.
Kagan was interviewed by law school professors Laura Rothstein and Justin Walker. Rothstein is a former dean of the law school and dedicated to the legacy and history of Justice Brandeis.
Walker knew Kagan when he was a student at Harvard Law School and she was school’s dean.
Kagan regaled the audience with stories about the lighter side of her work as a Supreme Court Justice.
She said the justices are a collegial group who often go to lunch together and avoid allowing legal disagreements to divide them.
She called Justice Sandra Day O’Conner — who often solicited people for her morning aerobics class — a “hoot” and recalled late Justice Antonin Scalia as “incredibly enthusiastic, warm and wonderful.”
Kagan gave especially high praise to late Justice Thurgood Marshall as a master storyteller with a great sense of humor and “the most important lawyer of the 20th century.” Kagan clerked for Marshall when he was on the high court.
On the topic of contributions made by Justice Brandeis, Kagan said, “I love the way he writes. I think he (was) a brilliant, brilliant writer. He believed in facts and knew the way the world works. There’s a kind of wisdom in his opinions.”
Kagan was appointed by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in 2010 to replace Justice John Paul Stevens. She is the youngest sitting justice and her resume includes legal counsel and adviser to President Bill Clinton, Harvard Law School’s first female dean and the nation’s first female solicitor general.
Kagan is the court’s 112th justice and fourth female justice.
Other U.S. Supreme Court justices who were awarded the Brandeis Medal include Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Harry Blackmun, Sandra Day O’Connor and John Paul Stevens.
Check out video from the ceremony below.