The issue of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and a controversy over allowing the U.S. military to recruit on college campuses emerged as central concerns during U.S. Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearings this week.
The issues emerged Tuesday during the second day of hearings for Kagan — who’s currently serving as U.S. solicitor general — in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which was expected to continue throughout the week.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) directed pointed questions at Kagan about the views she expressed as dean of Harvard Law School over military recruitment on campus.
According to media reports, in October 2003 Kagan wrote in an e-mail to students that military recruiting on campus caused her “deep distress” and that she “abhor[s] the military’s discriminatory recruitment policy.”
In testimony, Kagan affirmed her opposition to the ban on open service as dean and said she still holds that belief.
“I have repeatedly said that I believe that the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy is unwise and unjust,” she said. “I believed it then and I believe it now.”
Kagan said as dean she tried to ensure military recruiters had “full and complete access” while she simultaneously tried to enforce Harvard’s non-discrimination policy that bars discrimination based on sexual orientation.
She said she worked out a compromise as dean that enabled a veterans’ organization to sponsor military recruiters on campus as opposed to the U.S. military itself. Kagan noted that this policy was changed after the Defense Department voiced concerns about not having full access.
Sessions was critical of her efforts and cited examples of actions she took that he said raised doubts about her support for the U.S. military.
The ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, Sessions has voiced concerns about the Kagan nomination throughout the confirmation process and is a likely vote against seating her on the Supreme Court.
Sessions said Kagan participated in a campus protest and spoke out against the Solomon Amendment, which allows the U.S. government to withhold federal funding from universities if they restrict military recruitment on campus.
The senator cited a friend-of-the-court brief that Kagan signed as one of 40 Harvard professors in favor a U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2004 overturning the Solomon Amendment.
In response, Kagan characterized the brief as an argument that Harvard’s accommodation for military recruiters through a veterans’ group was consistent with the Solomon Amendment.
“We filed an amicus brief not attacking the constitutionality of the Solomon Amendment, but instead saying simply that Harvard policy complied with the Solomon Amendment,” she said.
Kagan noted that in the end, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the arguments presented by Harvard professors in a 2006 decision upholding the Solomon Amendment.
Sessions accused Kagan of engaging in unscrupulous activity at Harvard by instituting a new policy following the Third Circuit ruling and suggested she shouldn’t have issued a change because the Solomon Amendment remained in effect.
The senator said Kagan’s description of events was “unconnected to reality” and that he was “a little taken aback” by her remarks.
“I know what happened at Harvard,” he said. “I know you’ve been [an] outspoken leader against the military policy. I know you acted — without legal authority — to reverse Harvard’s policy to deny the military equal access to campus until you were threatened by the United States government with the loss of critical funds.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Judiciary Committee, interrupted Sessions to allow Kagan to respond to Sessions’ remarks.
Noting her father was a military veteran, Kagan said she has “respect” for the military and “one of the great privileges” of her time at Harvard was working with students who were former service members or who wanted to enter the military.
Doug NeJaime, a gay law professor at Loyola Law School, said Kagan “took the position that we expected her to take” in response to Sessions’ questioning by explaining school policy on military recruitment.
“I don’t think this is huge issue because, I think, it’s very much in the mainstream of law schools’ decision-making around ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and the Solomon Amendment,” NeJaime said. “And so, I think she defended the position in a satisfactory way.”
NeJaime said Sessions was trying to make it seem that Kagan was trying to undermine the U.S. military during her tenure as dean, or prevent them having access to students.
“She made it very clear that that’s not what she was doing,” NeJaime said. “The military had access to the students, and students had access to the military, and she had great respect for the military.”
Kagan’s opposition to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — which she articulated during her confirmation hearings — renews the question of whether she would have to recuse herself if confirmed and the issue came before the high court.
But NeJaime said he didn’t think such statements meant that Kagan wouldn’t be able to take part in a case on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“She’s been pretty clear about speaking about it as a political matter and as an ethical matter,” NeJaime said. “She thinks it’s a bad policy, but I don’t think that that means she can’t fairly adjudicate equal protection or due process claims raised by the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.”
Further questions arose about LGBT cases in which Kagan may have to recuse herself in light of Leahy’s questioning on what matters she believed she would have sit out if they came to the bench.
In response to Leahy’s questioning, Kagan said she would recuse herself in cases that came before the court if she had been a “counsel of record” in any state of the process for litigation.
“I think there are probably about 10 cases that are on the docket next year … in which I have been a counsel of record in a petition for certiorari” or played a similar role, she said.
During her tenure as solicitor general, the Justice Department issued several briefs in defense of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” — as well as the Defense of Marriage Act — in response to legal challenges in federal courts.
But NeJaime said the briefs don’t represent Kagan acting as a counsel of record because they originated under the jurisdiction of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.
“She’s in the solicitor general’s office whereas the papers filed in the DOMA cases have been coming from the Justice Department,” NeJaime said. “So she actually hasn’t been counsel of record on any cases implicating the Defense of Marriage Act, so I don’t see any problem there.”
NeJaime added this situation would also apply with respect to Justice Department’s response to legal challenges of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”