- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - Elena Kagan, the Obama administration’s top Supreme Court lawyer, is passing up the chance to make her first high-court argument in a big case over minority voting rights.

Instead, Kagan, confirmed by the Senate last month as solicitor general, will wait until the fall to make her debut, Justice Department spokeswoman Beverley Lumpkin said Tuesday.

By the time Kagan took up her post, Lumpkin said, most of the cases the court will hear in April already had been assigned.

“I suppose she could have spent the last several weeks doing nothing but preparing, but that’s not something she wanted to do. There’s a lot to do getting up to speed in the office,” Lumpkin said.

The solicitor general typically handles the top cases before the court. The challenge to a provision of the Voting Rights Act, which will be argued April 29, is perhaps this term’s highest-profile case.

Kagan has a most impressive resume _ former Harvard Law School dean, Clinton White House official and Supreme Court clerk _ but she has little courtroom experience.

David Garrow, a Cambridge University historian who has written about the court and voting rights, said recently that Kagan would be better off breaking in with an easier case. In the voting rights area, Garrow said, “You’d be running a significantly higher risk of making a mistake than you would on most things.”

Kagan’s top deputy, Neal Katyal, will handle the administration’s argument in the case, Lumpkin said. He has argued three cases previously and won a big victory in 2006 when he represented Guantanamo Bay detainees who were facing military tribunals.

___

What’s the ultimate luxury? Justice Clarence Thomas answered that question the way many other older Southerners would: air conditioning.

Thomas, who spent part of his childhood in Georgia in an apartment with no indoor toilet, much less air conditioning, told a group of student essay winners in a recent speech that they need to adjust their expectations and appreciate everything life has to offer in good times and bad.

“Many of us have come to think that we are owed prosperity,” Thomas said at a dinner sponsored by the Bill of Rights Institute.

Thomas, 60, said he learned while growing up that it wouldn’t always be good times and success. “There were no guarantees except we had the right to try,” Thomas said.

The trappings of modern life have somewhat spoiled people, Thomas said. He remembered when he asked a group of students who came to see him at the court if any of them had a cell phone. All of them did.

“I’m one of those people who think that a dishwasher is a miracle,” Thomas said. “And I have to admit, I like to load it.”

After his talk, Thomas was asked how his judicial philosophy had changed from his time at Yale Law School. He laughed and said he didn’t have a judicial philosophy back then. “I was just trying to graduate,” he said.

___

Justice John Paul Stevens turns 89 on Monday, when the justices return to the bench for the final two weeks of arguments this term.

Stevens will be only the second justice to celebrate his 89th birthday while on the court. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who retired at age 90 in 1932, was the other.

Don’t expect birthday wishes to be offered in the courtroom. That will come later, at the lunch the justices share on days the court is in session. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a recent speech, the justices usually “celebrate birthdays with a pre-lunch toast, and a ‘Happy Birthday’ chorus generally led by Justice (Antonin) Scalia.”

Why Scalia? “Because among us, he is best able to carry a tune,” Ginsburg said.

Her husband, noted tax lawyer and Georgetown University law professor Martin Ginsburg, sometimes bakes a cake for the occasion, she said.

(This version CORRECTS that Katyal has argued 3 cases at Supreme Court.)

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