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Kagan Leaves a Mark on Her First Day

The Supreme Court's newest Justice Elena Kagan stands for photographs after her formal investiture ceremony at the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, Oct. 1, 2010. AP

There's been a lot of hyped-up consternation about whether Elena Kagan was ready to be a justice. Among the nine, she is the only justice who hadn't first been an appeals court judge, and so the chatter among critics is that she would struggle because her learning curve was steep.

Ahem. No.

In her first case as a sitting justice this morning, Kagan came off like a seasoned, savvy pro. She hit lawyers with precise questions that weren't unduly aggressive, and she made her points. What's more, she showed why many people think she'll be a true force on the Court: She effectively drew in other the justices with her questions--asking a follow up to a question by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, and then striking true gold by piquing the interest of human jump ball Justice Anthony Kennedy.

When Justice Kennedy perks up and tells a lawyer, " I want to know your answer to Justice Kagan's question," that means one thing. Justice Kagan is having a Very Good Day.

I was curious how Kagan would conduct herself today, because new justices have different strategies. Justice Samuel Alito, for example, consciously and deliberately decided to hold back his first year, just to get a lay of the land and show his respect as the junior justice. After that first year, many assumed he was quiet, unassuming, reserved Justice Alito. But of course he wasn't. After his first year, Alito started to boldly jump in, and he's now one of the Court's most effective and insightful questioners at oral argument.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, on the other hand, showed no restraint. From the beginning, she has been vocal and somewhat aggressive--to the point that it caused a few raised eyebrows among some of her new colleagues.

Kagan split the difference, and she was impressive. Her questions were clear, concise and exactly on point. She pulled together various points other justices were making, and her demeanor was at once sincere and respectful, yet also forceful and confident.

Granted, it was just the first case on the first day. And the case--a technical, somewhat trivial bankruptcy dispute--wasn't much to speak of. Reading too much into it would be like saying Boise State should be #1 because they beat Virginia Tech to start the season. (Ahem. No.)

But it was a good start for the newest justice. If you're a liberal who hopes she will be an intellectual force who builds coalitions, you had to like what you saw. And if you're a conservative, you had reasons to feel nervous.

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