After a long day of questioning by senators hoping to find out more about Solicitor General Elena Kagan, there's one thing they now know for sure: No matter how they try to get her to discuss her judicial philosophy, there's no hard answer. For Kagan, it's all on a case-by-case basis.
At least, that's the sense Kagan conveyed today over and over again when asked about her political views and how they might influence her role on the Supreme Court.
Asked about issues including abortion, military recruitment, "don't ask, don't tell," executive power and other hot-button issues, Kagan always asserted that the law was the law, precedent was binding, and that's how she'd plan on ruling if any of those issues fell before her if her nomination was confirmed. She often answered questions with phrases indicating she felt she would bring no bias to the bench.
"I think I will take this one case at a time," she said several times. Others times, it came in the form of "I will try to judge each case as it comes."
The remarks were ironic, some congressmen noted, especially for someone who had once before written that the nomination process had become somewhat of a farce with barely any substance. So, she was asked her own question that she said would be fair to ask any nominee: How she felt she might move the institution, politically. Kagan said she expected that she wouldn't, but was pressed further, saying it was a question she herself obviously thought was fair and important.
"It might be a fair question ..." Kagan said, her voice rising, then pausing before it trailed off. It was almost as if she wanted to answer, or couldn't say "but I won't answer it."
Senators tried several ways to find out where she would fall as a judge - because she has never sat on a judicial bench - asking about her views on other justices, the court's prior rulings and previous precedents. She did answer questions about a military recruitment issue and abortion, and about several other issues in roundabout ways. But she didn't waver much in her answers, though she tried often to invoke some humor in them.
"I would not want to characterize the current court in any way - I hope one day to join it," Kagan said at one point, drawing comical remarks from senators that she may have some politician in her yet.
The hearing also had its contentious moments, including one between Sen. Jeff Sessions and Kagan, regarding her role as a dean at Harvard University and military recruiters being allowed on campus. At one point, Sessions said he thought Kagan was "unconnected to reality" in how she was classifying the situation. The hearing also had a few moments of sparring among committee members: Sen. Orrin Hatch and Sen. Patrick Leahy got into a small debate when Leahy tried to tell his colleague to rephrase his questioning.
But like many other moments during the hearing, the tension was broken with some laughter.
"We have to have a little back and forth every once in a while, or this place would be boring as hell, I'll tell you," Hatch said, laughing. Kagan responded that she was happy it took the spotlight off her for a moment.
"By the way, I've been informed that hell is not boring," Hatch remarked, laughing.
And during a break in the questioning, when not everyone was back in time, Sen. Jon Kyl found a way to invoke some humor himself.
"General Kagan, you can see how important my colleagues think my questions are here," Kyl said, with Leahy, the committee's chairman, chiming in quickly that he was there.
Kagan offered a quick-witted response that perhaps couldn't be more ironic: "Or how important my answers are."