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U.S. Supreme Court nominee, Solicitor General Elena Kagan smiles as she meets with Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) on Capitol Hill May 18, 2010 in Washington, DC.
NEW YORK -- Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan's basic bio looks like this: raised in a middle-class Jewish family in Manhattan. Two brothers. Mother taught school. Dad was a lawyer. Look closer, and you'll find a family tree richly populated with individuals of great determination, intelligence and activism. There's even a bona fide tree-hugger and a leftist dissident in the lot.
Supreme Court justices are as much biography as they are resume. And because Solicitor General Kagan never served as a judge, her early influences may help court-watchers fill in the blanks on her world view.
Tidbits from Kagan's youth prefigure her achievements. She was the first girl in her synagogue to have a bat mitzvah. In high school, she was president of student government and donned judge's robes for a picture of the group.
Her late mother, Gloria Kagan, came of age in an era when women had few professional options, and relished the idea of her daughter having a "high-powered professional career," Elena once said.
Gloria was also an "adamant patriot," and like her husband, whose father came from Poland, she was a child of immigrants, tracing her family to the Ukraine, according to Elena's brother Irving.
Had Elena's parents lived to witness her nomination, Irving said, they would have seen it "as evidence of their view of America as a land of opportunity."
But Gloria also believed that success doesn't come without hard work. She pushed her students, and you can imagine Elena absorbing that message too.
As a sixth-grade teacher, Gloria Kagan "set the bar unbelievably high and made each and every one of her students believe they were capable of anything in the world," said former student Erica Goldman, a science writer with a Ph.D. in biology.
"But to get there, they were going to work harder than they'd ever worked before," Goldman said.
Elena's late father, Robert, had a small law firm that mostly represented tenants. But he was also devoted to unglamorous local causes as chairman of the community board. Among them: securing housing for poor families displaced by the construction of Lincoln Center, and opposing Westway, a proposed superhighway through residential areas.
In the mid-70s, he even tied himself to a tree to save it from Westway. "He called me and said, 'Get over here with a rope,' " recalled Sally Goodgold, who worked with Kagan on the community board. "'There is someone with a chain saw ripping down old trees for the highway. They have no permit.' "
Goodgold found him faced off against chain saws, hugging a tree. She tied him to it and wrapped herself around another tree. The trees were saved; Westway was eventually defeated.
"It was the beginning of the end of government deciding to do something without any community input," Goodgold said.
In the summer of 1980, Elena Kagan worked for Liz Holtzman, a Democrat running for U.S. Senate in New York. That fall, after Holtzman was defeated and President Ronald Reagan was elected, Elena wrote in The Daily Princetonian, "Where I grew up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, nobody ever admitted to voting Republican." She added that the "real Democrats" she had known were "motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government. Perhaps because of this background, I absorbed such liberal principles early."
A few months later, Elena turned in her Princeton senior thesis, on the history of socialism. In the acknowledgments, she thanked her brother Marc, saying his "involvement in radical causes led me to explore the history of American radicalism in the hope of clarifying my own political ideas."
Asked in an e-mail how his politics influenced his sister's, Marc wrote, "The answer is, 'not at all.' "
Legal commentator Jeffrey Toobin, who was Elena's classmate at Harvard Law School, said "it was very clear in law school that Elena loved her brother and it was also very clear that she did not share his views. ... Elena was a mainstream Democrat and he was considerably to the left."
University of Texas Law School professor Lucas Powe sees no evidence Elena Kagan is left-wing, and thinks her Princeton thesis may be "too low on the radar screen" to merit a question at the Senate hearings on her nomination.
But Terry Maroney, a professor at Vanderbilt University Law School, says Kagan "may well be asked about that thesis just because there's not that much else to question her about."
"Supreme Court hearings are more theater than substance and the thesis has some theater value," she said.
Elena's brothers, Marc and Irving, are both Yale graduates and social studies teachers in New York City. Irving teaches at Hunter College High School, a selective public school that he and Elena attended. Marc, who attended a private high school, Dalton, teaches at Bronx High School of Science.
Before he became a teacher, Marc worked in the subways for more than 15 years, maintaining equipment used in repairing subway cars, according to Steve Downs, chair of the train operators division of the Transport Workers Union Local 100.
Marc "was very committed to strong unions and to working-class struggles in general," said Downs.
Downs and Marc Kagan were part of a dissident caucus called New Directions that tried to reform the TWU local and eventually got one of its members, Roger Toussaint, elected as local president. Toussaint appointed Marc to be his assistant, but later removed him from the post after a falling-out. Marc eventually entered the city Teaching Fellows program, which trained new teachers to remedy a shortage.
Maroney said that "just because Kagan comes from a background where she was exposed to American radical history, it would be absolutely silly to say she's a radical or socialist. But it's interesting to think about having a justice who takes those issues seriously and won't write people off." Such a perspective might, for example, play out in a free speech case.
In an e-mail, Irving Kagan said he and his brother were overwhelmed by interview requests, and they didn't "see how our comments or lives were relevant, given my sister's extraordinary gifts and sterling credentials. We want nothing more than for her to be judged on her own merits."
He noted that Elena, 50, hasn't lived in New York in 30 years and rarely sees her siblings except for holidays.
He said Kagan Thanksgivings often feature "as many pies as people" - including apple, pecan, cherry, blueberry, key lime, banana cream and pumpkin. On those occasions, Irving said, Elena and her brothers "have been known to talk about pie preferences. But she's never asked us to help her with her thinking about the law."
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
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