Elena Kagan is as guarded as any other Supreme Court nominee about her views on specific cases. But she is winning over senators anyway – by drawing giggles, laughs and even some outright guffaws from the lawmakers.
Washington – She is smart. She is learned in the law. And she has the ability to function well under extreme pressure.
These are traits that helped Elena Kagan navigate the pitfalls of six years as dean of Harvard Law School and the past year as the Obama Administration’s top lawyer at the US Supreme Court.
But there’s another quality – a gift – that is on full display during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings this week.
Kagan is funny.
And not just clever-witty, either. Sometimes she is laugh-out-loud delightful.
Kagan brought the house down during an exchange on Tuesday with Sen. Lindsey Graham. The South Carolina Republican was about to ask Kagan whether terrorists like the Christmas Day bomber in Detroit should be given Miranda warnings before being questioned for intelligence information.
“Where were you on Christmas Day?” Graham asked, setting up his line of questioning.
Kagan could see where he was headed and attempted to dodge the question. “That is an undecided legal issue,” she said.
Graham persisted. “I just asked you where you were on Christmas?”
A gleam appeared in Kagan’s eye. She laughed out loud. “You know, like all Jews, I was probably in a Chinese restaurant.”
The hearing room erupted in laughter followed by applause. Perfect delivery. Perfect timing.
“Great answer,” Graham responded.
Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont added, between laughs: “I could almost see that coming… Senator Schumer explained this to me.”
Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York chimed in: “No other restaurants are open.”
When Sen. Herb Kohl (D) of Wisconsin suggested that it might be a “good time to refer to your 1995 law review article in which you criticized Supreme Court nominees,” Kagan did not miss a beat.
“It’s been half an hour since I heard about that article,” she said, sparking laughter.
After confirming to Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania that she favors televising Supreme Court sessions, Kagan conceded: “It means I’d have to get my hair done more often.”
Laughing, Specter commended Kagan for the response. “You have shown a really admirable sense of humor,” he said, still laughing. “And as Senator Schumer said yesterday, we’re looking for somebody who can moderate the court, and a little humor would do them a lot of good,” Specter said.
When Schumer’s turn came to question Kagan, he noted a recent study that among the current members of the Supreme Court, conservative Justice Antonin Scalia gets the most laughs.
“He is a funny man,” Kagan acknowledged.
Schumer added: “If you get there – and I believe you will – you are going to give him a run for his money.”
Kagan will be appearing all week at the committee hearings. After that, she’s hoping for a permanent gig with packed audiences at a large marble building just down the street.