Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan shared her philosophy on both law and life with a packed crowd in Cox Auditorium Friday.
"Follow your heart: what fills you with a sense of meaning, value, and purpose in your life," Kagan said. "The best jobs are not good for objective reasons; they're good because people love getting up in the morning and going to them."
Though Kagan's visit ended before Saturday's game against Alabama, students and faculty had the opportunity to learn more about her on a personal level during her visit.
"I have to get back to Washington because I have to catch a plane early Sunday morning to Wyoming, where Justice (Antonin) Scalia and I are hoping to shoot one or more antelope," Kagan said. "Several times over the last couple of years we've shot birds together, and I've found it quite fun. I'm feeling a little bit of trepidation about this, but I'm hoping to bag myself an antelope. ... You want to talk some about the law?"
The justice engaged in a casual conversation covering a variety of legal issues with Doug Blaze, dean of the law school.
"You've been quite a pioneer," Blaze said of Kagan.
When asked about the challenges she has faced as a woman in the field of law, Kagan deferred to the accomplishments of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sandra Day O'Connor.
"It's really quite inspirational," Kagan said. "Nobody took them seriously, no one offered them jobs. If they wanted to go to a law firm, someone said 'why don't you be a secretary?' And they pushed through it all. I think that women like that did the hard work for women like me."
The crowd responded enthusiastically to glimpses of Kagan's personality off-bench. She told the audience that her favorite movie is "The Avengers."
"There are basically no comic book, action hero movies I haven't seen," Kagan said.
Her candor resonated well with attendees.
"As a pre-law student, it's easy to forget that the justices are human beings, who at one point were students like ourselves," Dillon Zinser, senior in political science, said. "You never get the human element reading a court opinion, so it was good to see that."
Kagan spoke about her time as Solicitor General and its value in preparing her to serve as a justice. She recounted her thought process the first time she argued before the Supreme Court in the "Citizens United" case from 2010.
"I had done arguments in district courts, but I had never done an appellate argument ... everyone said, 'this case is baked,'" Kagan said.
"I got up there and I was pretty nervous, as you are when you're doing something for the first time. I got up to thepodium and the questions started flying. ... I was about two sentences in, and Justice Scalia said 'No, no, no.' I said something to that, and I thought, 'Look at this, words are coming out of my mouth.'"
Though extremely fast-paced and challenging, Kagan expressed affection for her career.
"I deeply believe in public service, I also deeply enjoy public service," Kagan said. "I did have a very steep learning curve, and I had to listen and learn from a lot of people. My colleagues were terrifically helpful. Sometimes people think they write these opinions and they're critical of each other, but we are actually a very collegial court. I learned a lot by talking to them."
Blaze asked Kagan why she believes gender diversity is valuable to the Supreme Court.
"The signal it sends to our country is important. ... Girls and boys see a court (where) women are engaging as passionately as the men, and doing as good of a job as well," Kagan said. "I think it's not very important in the conference room. Are (cases) even talked about differently because there are women sitting there? The answer is no. We come to these things as lawyers. When we disagree, the differences don't split along gender lines, they split along constitutional commitments. It's not about women having special inclinations or intentions."
Kagan's attention to issues like diversity and gender made the event relevant to different parts of the campus community.
"This is the only opportunity in my life I might have to come listen to a Supreme Court justice speak, since I'm going into more of a corporate environment," Hannah Alexander, senior in accounting, said. "I was really encouraged when Justice Kagan spoke about women serving on the bench, especially when she said that the fact that she was a woman didn't really make a difference behind closed doors."
In some ways, however, Kagan still believes the Court is homogenous.
"I think there are ways that the Court is not diverse. ... There is something peculiar about the geography. ... Six of us come from Harvard, and three of us come from Yale. There are many great law schools in our country, and that's just a little bit nutty."
Will Brewer, a UT law student, asked Kagan her opinion about media speculations over Court members' "quirks."
"A little bit of it comes with the territory: for people to think about you and to criticize you," Kagan said. "It's an 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen' kind of thing."