Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan extolled the late Justice John Paul Stevens and decried the effects of partisan gerrymandering on democracy. Yet it was not until a student at the Georgetown Law forum on Thursday asked about Spider-Man that Kagan began gesturing excitedly.
Her response to a question about a 2015 patent dispute over a toy glove that could shoot “webs” revealed at once Kagan’s rhetorical flair and, more importantly for today’s Supreme Court, her regard for precedent.
Kagan has become a powerful voice of the liberal wing, trying to counteract the conservative majority in the fight over whether to preserve court milestones. She achieved two surprising victories on that front in the recently completed session.
And even as she dissented in perhaps the most consequential case of the term – which prevents judges from halting extreme partisan gerrymanders – Kagan delivered a statement from the bench that was arguably her most passionate of a near-decade tenure.
The 2010 appointee of President Barack Obama is the junior-most among the four justices on the left, yet she has become one of the more intriguing of the nine to watch. She is readier than her colleagues, including senior liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to move to the middle of the ideological spectrum to strike deals to keep the court centered.
With the Spider-Man question, Kagan, 59, brought together much of what matters to her in stabilizing the law, even as she showed her whimsical side.
“I read Spider-Man as a kid,” she said of her youth in Manhattan, adding that she wanted to keep up with a brother who was “a big comic-book aficionado.”
She recalled that the toy in the patent-royalties dispute could emit pressurized string foam. She pretended she was pulling on the glove device. “Then you went like this,” she said, flinging out her hand before the audience, “and webs came out.”
“If you can’t get a Spider-Man reference into a case like that,” Kagan quipped, “you’re not working hard enough.”