Elena Kagan as Scholar

As scholar, Elena Kagan worked in two main fields, First Amendment law and (more or less) administrative law. Since the first of those fields is one in which I also work, I decided to reread those articles, and — since some people have raised questions about Kagan’s qualities as a scholar — look more broadly at her scholarship.

1. Let me begin with some objective factors, rather than my own evaluation of Kagan’s scholarship. As this excellent SCOTUSblog post chronicles, Kagan was a working scholar from 1991-95, and then 1999-2003. Between those years, she worked in the Clinton Administration; after those years, she was dean at Harvard Law School, a position that these days leaves its holder with very little time to do serious scholarship. In those eight years, she wrote or cowrote four major articles (linked to here), Presidential Administration (Harv. L. Rev. 2001), Chevron’s Nondelegation Doctrine (Harv. L. Rev. 2001, cowritten with David Barron), Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine (U. Chi. L. Rev. 1996), The Changing Faces of First Amendment Neutrality: R.A.V. v. St. Paul, Rust v. Sullivan, and the Problem of Content-Based Underinclusion (Sup. Ct. Rev. 1993). She also wrote three shorter but still substantial pieces, When a Speech Code Is a Speech Code: The Stanford Policy and the Theory of Incidental Restraints (U.C. Davis. L. Rev. 1996), Confirmation Messes, Old and New (U. Chi. L. Rev. 1995), and Regulation of Hate Speech and Pornography After R.A.V. (U. Chi. L. Rev. 1993).

Quantitatively, this is quite good output for eight years as a working scholar. It looks a lot smaller if one looks at her career from 1991 to 2009, when she was appointed Solicitor General — but for the reasons I mentioned above, that’s not the right way to look at it.

Moreover, two of her articles have been judged to be quite important by her colleagues. Presidential Administration has been cited 305 times in law journal articles (according to a search of Westlaw’s JLR database) — an extraordinarily high number of citations for any article, especially one that is less than 10 years old. In fact, a HeinOnline list of all articles with more than 100 citations, run in August 2009, reports that her article was at the time the 6th most-cited law review article of all the articles published since 2000. Many legal scholars, even ones working in the relatively high-citation fields of constitutional law and administrative law, have never and will never write an article that is so much cited.

Chevron’s Nondelegation Doctrine has been cited 75 times, a very high number for an article’s first 10 years; I suspect that only a tiny fraction of one percent of all law review articles are cited at such a pace. Private Speech, Public Purpose has been cited 129 times, likewise a very high number. The Changing Faces of First Amendment Neutrality has been cited only 36 times, but that probably stems in large part from the fact that Supreme Court Review articles from that era are not on Westlaw or Lexis (ridiculous, especially for a faculty-edited journal with the Supreme Court Review‘s excellent reputation, and likely stemming from a short-sighted non-licensing decision by the University of Chicago Press).

And while some articles might be heavily cited because they fit with academic ideological fashions, I don’t think these would qualify. As I understand it, Kagan’s administrative law work is consistent with a strong executive model, and the modern intellectual fashion (especially during the Bush era) has been to criticize this model (though the balance of the legal academy on this has not been as lopsided as on some other issues). Likewise, Kagan’s First Amendment scholarship, especially Private Speech, Public Purpose, doesn’t fit with any current fashion among First Amendment scholars; it is not, for instance, distinctively left-wing in its views (the direction in which the constitutional law academy famously trends these days). That it has been heavily cited suggests a substantive judgment about its technical merit and originality, and not just ideological sympathy.

So Kagan, it seems to me, is a successful scholar whose interests have extended beyond scholarship, to government service and to educational institution-building. As a result, she hasn’t written as much as she would have had she only been interested in scholarship (though I suspect that her time in the Clinton Administration helped her produce her administrative law articles). But that reflects the breadth of her interests, and not any intellectual limitations.

2. On then to my own evaluation of the First Amendment articles: I think they’re excellent. I disagree with them in significant ways (this article, for instance, reaches results that differ quite a bit from those suggested by Kagan’s Private Speech, Public Purpose article, see, e.g., PDF pp. 8-9). But I like them a lot.

The articles attack difficult and important problems (Private Speech, Public Purpose, for instance, tries to come up with a broad theory to explain much of free speech law). They seriously but calmly criticize the arguments on both sides, and give both sides credit where credit is due. For instance, I particularly liked Kagan’s treatment of both the Scalia R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul majority and the Stevens concurrence, in her Changing Faces of First Amendment Neutrality article.

As importantly, the articles go behind glib generalizations and formalistic distinctions and deal with the actual reality on the ground, such as the actual likely effects of speech restrictions, and of First Amendment doctrine. (I’m a big believer in formalism in the sense of a preference for rules over standards; but I share many people’s disapproval of formalistic arguments in the fashioning of rules, when those arguments ignore real-world distinctions and effects, and obscure the important policy questions rather than revealing them.) This is legal scholarship as it should be, and as it too rarely is.

3. But how would Elena Kagan likely actually vote in First Amendment cases? It’s hard to tell for sure.

This is partly because her work is in large measure structural and theoretical, rather than focusing on specific constitutional controversies. And it is partly because even her articles that focus on such specific controversies, such as over so-called “hate speech” and pornography, are often more analytical (here’s how we should understand the law, and here are the pluses and minuses of various approaches) than prescriptive (here’s the rule courts should adopt). That’s a fine trait in an article — the analytical components are generally more useful to readers than the prescriptive components. But it does make it hard to predict just how the author would decide cases as a Supreme Court Justice.

Still, here’s my rough sense of the matter:

a. Kagan’s First Amendment work suggests a general acceptance of current free speech law, and an attempt to better understand it and make it more internally consistent rather than to radically change it. I can’t tell for sure whether this flows from a judgment about what’s more useful scholarship, from a largely precedent-respecting temperament, or from agreement with the underlying free speech caselaw. But my guess is that it at least in part reflects a general comfort with the current precedents, and a lack of desire to shift them much.

b. On so-called “hate speech” and pornography, the two First Amendment topics on which Kagan has most explicitly written, I likewise see little interest in moving the law much. Kagan seems to find much that’s sensible about R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul — which held that even within the unprotected category of “fighting words,” the government may not single out words based on their racially, religiously, etc. themed message. And to the extent she’s skeptical about that decision, it sounds like most that she would tolerate is a restriction within this unprotected category of fighting words: I don’t think she would endorse restrictions on allegedly racist or otherwise bigoted speech outside this traditionally unprotected category.

Likewise, while she might tolerate some restrictions on pornography — probably limited to pornography that depicts violent sex — it seems likely that she won’t go much beyond (and likely not at all beyond) restrictions on pornography that already fits within the “obscenity” exception. I am no fan of the obscenity exception, chiefly because of its nearly lawless vagueness. But while it sounds like Kagan probably wouldn’t vote to get rid of the exception, or even go so far as Stevens to argue that obscenity could only be punished through civil enforcement and not the criminal law, it also sounds like Kagan probably wouldn’t materially expand the exception, or create similar exceptions to join it.

c. What about the matters on which Justices on the left wing of the Court have generally taken a relatively speech-restrictive view — campaign finance speech restrictions, and restrictions on religious speech in generally available government subsidy programs (see, e.g., Rosenberger v. University of Virginia)? (I do not include within this category so-called “hate speech” or pornography, even violent and allegedly misogynistic pornography, since the Justices on the left wing of the Court have not generally taken a relatively speech-restrictive view as to these.)

Here, Kagan’s writings are relatively opaque. Some passages in her Private Speech, Public Purpose article suggests that she’s at least sympathetic with Buckley v. Valeo‘s holding that restrictions on individual expenditures related to campaigns are unconstitutional. If that’s so, then she would probably take a more speech-protective view than Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and probably Breyer (we don’t know much about Justice Sotomayor’s views on the question). But it’s hard to be even close to certain of this.

My guess is that the likeliest bet would be to say that a Justice Kagan would be roughly where Justice Ginsburg is — generally pretty speech-protective, but probably with some exceptions in those areas where the liberal Justices on the Court have taken a more speech-restrictive view, chiefly expensive speech related to campaigns and religious speech in generally available government subsidies. Not perfect from my perspective, but not bad, and no worse than Justice Stevens, with whom Justice Ginsburg largely agreed on such matters.