Elena Kagan attends a White House ceremony marking her confirmation to the Supreme Court in August 2010.
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Elena Kagan attends a White House ceremony marking her confirmation to the Supreme Court in August 2010.

Story highlights

Conservative and liberal Supreme Court justices fast friends, hunt together

New York City native Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia seek big game

Supreme Court becoming a "hot bench" and it's not about temperature

Samuel Alito too intense? Critics and supporters weigh in

Washington CNN —  

Justice Elena Kagan has some exciting news: “I shot myself a deer.”

New York City native Kagan revealed over the weekend that she and conservative colleague Justice Antonin Scalia have expanded their hunting forays.

Last year, “he said ‘it’s time for big-game hunting.’ So we actually went out to Wyoming this past fall to shoot deer and antelope,” Kagan said, revealing some rare inside information about the justices and their interactions with each other outside the court.

The newest member has become fast friends with one of the most conservative, and had earlier indicated they had been hunting for quail four or five times.

All this started when President Barack Obama nominated Kagan, 53, to the high court in 2010 and she made the rounds with senators. Many of those private meetings involved questions about her views on hot-button issues.

“The NRA (National Rifle Association) has quite a presence in judicial confirmations,” Kagan told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival on Saturday.

“And quite a few senators ask you your views on the Second Amendment,” she said.

While refusing to reveal how she would vote on such cases, Kagan promised to keep an open mind.

She previously revealed Sen. Jim Risch asked her about gun rights, remarking the nominee may not realize how important the issue is to some Americans.

Kagan admitted never having owned or fired a gun before.

Elena Kagan: Fast Facts

“But I told the senator if I was fortunate enough to be confirmed, I would go hunting with Justice Scalia,” she said.

And that promise has been kept, first joining him on an excursion to a Washington-area shooting range and then on several hunting trips.

Kagan’s point in all this is to reinforce what few American believe of a court with five more conservative members and four who are more liberal.

Top Supreme Court Decisions

“We get along remarkably well,” she told the Aspen audience. “There are true and genuine friendships. It’s true the (ideological) disagreements test people’s capacity to work together, but to come back the next day and find your colleague just as delightful as you found him the day before – we’re all grownups and we manage to do that, and the court is full of great people,” she said.

“We schmooze more than people think we do,” she added.

What’s next? Duck hunting, Kagan said.

Hear Kagan at Aspen

’Hot Bench’

The current Supreme Court is considered a “hot bench” and not because of the courtroom temperature or the relative good looks of the nine justices.

“Hot” as in the spirited, often competitive oral arguments that have livened up – or injected chaos into – public sessions where important legal and constitutional issues are openly debated and discussed.

One person who thinks it is getting increasingly toasty is Chief Justice John Roberts, who said on Saturday that arguments have “gone too far.”

“We do overdo it, the bench has gotten more and more aggressive,” said the man who presides over those two-hour sessions. “Recent appointees have tended to be more active in questioning than the justices they replaced.”

Roberts revealed his concerns at a judicial conference in West Virginia, saying he is often put into an uncomfortable position.

“I’ve had to act as an umpire in terms of the competition among my colleagues to get questions out,” he said.

While not offering excuses, he does say one reason may be the nine justices do not discuss the cases among themselves before arguments.

“So when we get out on the bench it’s really the first we begin to get some clues about what our colleagues think,” he said. “We do tend sometimes to debate each other through counsel.”

Justice Samuel Alito, who is relatively subdued on the bench, was more blunt about the interruptions of counsel, and justices speaking over each other.

“Trying to get in a question at oral argument is really like trying to grab an item that’s on sale at Walmart the day after Thanksgiving,” Alito said in his trademark deadpan manner two weeks ago, in a speech at the State Bar of Texas.

Read: Roberts’ remarks

No joking

Justice Samuel Alito has long had a reputation of taking his job seriously. Unlike Chief Justice John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, or Elena Kagan, he rarely jokes from the bench.

And for those who do not know him personally or covered him for any length of time, his personal demeanor can come off as harsh or overly intense.

Now some progressive groups have suggested Alito’s recent behavior was a violation of the Code of Conduct for United States Judges.

The Washington Post and Atlantic magazine said he acted with “judicial intemperance” and “inexcusable rudeness” at the June 25 public session of the court.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sitting next to Alito, was reading an oral dissent, criticizing the majority’s ruling in a workplace discrimination case.

The isolated media reports said Alito, without speaking, rolled his eyes, shook his head, and looked at the ceiling.

The reporters claimed other incidents of “rude behavior” in the days prior when Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Kagan also spoke from the bench.

CNN did not witness the alleged incidents, but other justices have long been observed appearing a bit distracted when opinions are read in open session.

It is a process that can drag on for half-hour or more when the rest of the court must sit in silence.

The backdrop to all this involves Alito’s public display during the nationally televised 2010 State of the Union Address by President Barack Obama.

Alito was among several conservative justices sitting just feet away, when the president attacked a majority ruling on campaign finance reform.

Cameras showed Alito appearing to mouth the words “not true” at Obama’s assertion the opinion would open floodgates to uncontrolled corporate spending in federal elections.

The progressive Alliance for Justice now says Alito’s demeanor last week suggested a disrespect for women.

“Perhaps Alito felt he could pull the same stunt again because this time, no one outside the courtroom actually would see his antics – they could only be described by those who were there,” said a blog posting by the group Monday.

Cameras are not allowed in the high court.

Those who know the 63-year-old New Jersey native are privately upset at suggestions Alito is personally antagonistic toward women, or to any of his colleagues.

Several people close to him told CNN Alito is a sensitive, thoughtful man, without affectation or animus. They also admit he possesses an often biting sense of humor.

In a letter to the editor published Friday in the Washington Post, two former law clerks called the media reports “character attacks” on the conservative justice.

“This suggestion is offensive and couldn’t be further from the truth, as his many female clerks can attest,” said William Ranney Levi and Dana Remus. “Those of us who have been fortunate to work closely with Justice Alito know that he is a good man who serves every day with humility, dedication and incredible intelligence and insight.”

Alito himself had no comment on the reports.