Skip to main content

Kagan e-mails show confident, brassy side to Supreme Court nominee

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
  • Kagan served in Clinton administration
  • Clinton library has released 160,000 pages of documents related to Kagan
  • Document releases have come with little notice on Friday afternoons
  • In one e-mail, Kagan refers to Clinton remark in speech as "presumptuous"

Washington (CNN) -- More old documents unveiled are offering more fresh signs that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was an eager, tough-talking political player while working as a lawyer in the Clinton White House.

In one e-mail, she criticizes one of President Bill Clinton's most important speeches as "presumptuous."

The latest and final batch of more than 80,000 pages -- mostly e-mails-- were released Friday by the William J. Clinton Presidential Library. The 50-year-old Kagan was nominated to the high court May 10 by President Barack Obama, and her confirmation hearings begin June 28.

Some 160,000 pages of documents are being publicly disclosed from Kagan's four years in the Clinton White House. She was in the White House counsel's office in 1995 and 1996, and in the Domestic Policy Council (DPC) office from 1997 to 1999.

Papers from those stints have been released the past two Fridays, displaying a lawyer with a politically tuned, pragmatic approach to issues like abortion, gun control and tobacco regulation.

About 11,000 e-mails from Kagan reveal an engaged, efficient -- but often outspoken and cynical -- lawyer and policy analyst.

The library, citing presidential confidentiality, has said it was withholding several memos written by Kagan related to the broad Whitewater probe into Clinton's personal and financial dealings.

One January 1997 e-mail shows Kagan was not above slamming her boss. She called one of Clinton's passages from his then-recent inaugural address as "the most preposterously presumptuous line I have ever seen."

The president had quoted the Bible when seeking racial harmony: "Thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations, and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of paths to dwell in."

Kagan remarked to her superior in the private exchange that if "the press really came down on him" for that line, Clinton would deserve the blame.

Many of the computer-generated e-mails are in the typically breezy, terse style of inter-office communications. "Shameless" was her one-word response to a fellow staffer, but the details leading up to that response were not revealed.

The communications often illustrate the mostly mundane aspects of scheduling meetings, following-up on various projects, and responding to one policy crisis after another.

Early into her stint as deputy in the Domestic Policy Council, she described her hands-on approach to the job: "One of these days soon, I'm going to get around to meeting with everyone. In general, you should presume that I want to be kept generally up to speed on everything."

Apparent snarkiness sometimes invaded her messages. When trying with great effort for days to coordinate who would attend a big meeting of officials on various domestic matters, Kagan noted that then-Attorney General Janet Reno would appear. "The AG is coming. After talking to me a bit, her scheduler announced that it sounded as if the meeting 'wouldn't be a waste of time,'" she wrote on January 28, 1997. "Pressure's on."

Kagan in the e-mails shows her political antenna was sharply aligned. In 1999 she notified then-Vice President Al Gore's chief of staff of upcoming White House staff meetings with a variety of issue advocates -- including homosexual rights supporters, and religious groups -- on a pending religious freedom law.

With Gore preparing for a White House run as president, Kagan suggested Gore not support the legislation, believing it would create a "gay/lesbian firestorm."

"We'll let you know as soon as it's safe to go back into the water," the 39-year-old lawyer told top Gore aide Ron Klain, who now holds the same position as chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden.

Kagan also noted she was a big supporter of the law to protect religious freedom.

The material is a prelude to Kagan's much-anticipated appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Republicans on the panel continue to express deep concern that the weekly document releases provide little time for members to explore her work as a government lawyer, and whether they offer any clues to how she might rule as a justice on the nation's highest court.

"We must be convinced that someone who has spent the better part of her career as a political advisor, policy advocate, and academic -- rather than as a legal practitioner or a judge -- can put aside her personal and political beliefs, and impartially apply the law, rather than be a rubber stamp for the Obama or any other administration," said Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, in a floor speech Friday. "The Clinton library documents make it harder -- not easier-- to believe that Ms. Kagan could make that necessary transition."

The White House has fashioned a low-key campaign to get Kagan confirmed, trying to avoid any public controversy that could derail her elevation to a lifetime job on the bench. The Clinton-era documents have been released on Friday afternoons, generally a slow news times. The latest document dump came without any official, advance notice from the Clinton library.

Keeping with the custom of past administrations, Obama officials have refused to make Kagan available to press interviews since her nomination, and she has spent her days meeting privately with senators and prepping for the hearings in a small office in the White House complex.

If confirmed Kagan would succeed retiring Justice John Paul Stevens.

Until she stepped down last month, she was the administration's solicitor general, who argues federal government cases before the Supreme Court. She has no judicial experience, and conservative critics have been eagerly scanning her record in government service and academia for signs of her possible judicial philosophy.

The documents released by the Clinton library are available online at