Brandeis Medal Awarded to Justice Elena Kagan

dsc_2707One hundred years ago, native Louisvillian Louis Brandeis was appointed to be a Supreme Court Justice, the first Jewish person to be appointed to the post. The Louisville community has honored that milestone by a year of events marking the occasion.

In 1982, the University of Louisville D. Brandeis School of Law established the Brandeis medal to recognize individuals whose lives reflect Justice Brandeis’ commitment to the ideals of individual liberty, concern for the disadvantaged and public service. It is the highest honor the school presents and is given annually. The award winner comes to Louisville to present a program.

On October 24, the University of Louisville Louis D. Brandeis School of Law awarded the Brandeis Medal to Elena Kagan, Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. The medal was presented to Justice Kagan by Susan Duncan, dean of the Brandeis School, at a ceremony on campus.

Before receiving the medal, Justice Kagan participated in a panel discussion, where she was interviewed by Professors Laura Rothstein and Justin Walker. Formerly, Walker was a student of Kagan’s at Harvard Law School.

Justice Kagan shared memories of her time as a clerk for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice to serve on the Court and commented on the often unseen relationship the justices share outside of the Court.

She recalled how Chief Justice John Roberts was the first to call her to congratulate her on her confirmation, despite it being nearly 3 a.m. in Australia, from where he was calling. The relationships of the members of the Court were noted by the tradition of all justices having lunch together after major Court rulings, regardless of the outcome. While on some occasions this is not easy, Justice Kagan values this tradition and sees it as important.

Justice Kagan also shared amusing memories of a basketball injury suffered at the Supreme Court’s own basketball court (what she referred to as “the highest court in the land”) and how former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told her that it would not have happened had she taken aerobics instead. She also fondly remembered her late colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia and the close friendship they formed, even though they disagreed on many issues.

As only the fourth woman appointed to serve on the nation’s highest court, Justice Kagan is aware of her place in history; however, she does not necessarily believe that the presence of three women currently changes the ideological makeup. She believes it is valuable, however, for students – both boys and girls – and others to see women on the court and in professional roles.

A number of local attorneys, judges, and alumni of the law school attended the event along with members of the university community, including President Neville Pinto and Provost Dale Billingsly. Students from Central High School, with whom the law school shares a partnership, were also in attendance.

Mashayla Hays, a graduate of Central High School and current second year Brandeis School student, presented Justice Kagan with a t-shirt with Muhammad Ali’s famous quote, “Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee,” inspired by the Central High School mascot, the yellow jackets and honoring the late Muhammad Ali, Louisville’s most famous citizen.

Katie Bonds, Student Bar Association president presented her with Muhammad Ali boxing gloves to recognize Justice Kagan’s exercise regime of boxing. Professor Rothstein presented Justice Kagan with a box of animal crackers, one of Justice Brandeis’ favorite late night snacks. She later continued another tradition, by accompanying Justice Kagan in placing a wreath at Justice Brandeis’ grave at the law school portico.

Justice Kagan, who grew up in a Jewish family on the Upper West Side of New York City, is a graduate of Princeton University, Oxford University and Harvard Law School, where she served as its first female dean.

Prior to being appointed by President Barak Obama in 2010, Justice Kagan served as U.S. solicitor general, another position for which she was the first female appointment. She currently occupies the same seat on the Supreme Court once held by Brandeis himself.

The Brandeis Medal is awarded to individuals whose lives reflect Justice Brandeis’s commitment to the ideals of public service. Previous recipients include Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, Abner J. Mikva, Professors Samuel Dash and Arthur Miller, Brandeis biographer Melvin Urofsky, and legal journalist Linda Greenhouse. Mel Urofsky has been a speaker at JCC/Federation events on previous occasions.

In another event on October 24, Jeffrey Rosen, author of the most recent Brandeis biography, gave a talk sponsored by the Filson Historical Society. The event at The Temple, was attended by about 500 people. In his talk, Rosen emphasized the significant influence that the Louisville community had on developing Brandeis’s principles.

The Brandeis School of Law, the Jewish community and legal community have honored Brandeis’ appointment centennial with several other events during 2016. These include David Dalin’s presentation at The J last April, during which he recounted the presence of Jews on the Court as described in his forthcoming book, The Jewish Justices of the Supreme Court From Brandeis to Kagan: Their Lives and Legacies (Brandeis University Press 2017).

Other events included the May presentations by Laura Rothstein about Brandeis and his connection to Louisville at the Kentucky Bar Association Annual Meeting (with Howard Fineman and Melvin Urofsky) and at the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference. In June, Lance Liebman (Kentucky native and former dean of Columbia Law School) gave a talk at the law school’s Warns/Render Conference about the Brandeis influence on labor and employment. On October 19, the Supreme Court Historical Society and the Brandeis School of Law recognized Justice Brandeis at an event at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, at which Urofsky spoke about the Brandeis influence on legal thought, particularly privacy and free speech.

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