When I was Director of Government Relations and Public Affairs (GRPA or GrrrrPaw...lovely acronym, eh?) at the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), we had a special relationship with the Supreme Court. Our Board Chairman, John Levy, was the son of the late Attorney General Ed Levy, the Gerald Ford appointee credited with returning the Department of Justice to its noble principles after the wreckage of the Nixon Administration. His Vice Chair was Martha Minnow, at the time Dean of Harvard Law, who has been called, “one of the world’s leading human rights scholars”. She clerked for Justice Thurgood Marshall, was called by former student Barack Obama, “a professor who changed my life”, and was one of the candidates considered to fill the Court vacancy when Justice John Paul Stevens retired in 2010. So, John Levy and Martha Minnow both had all of the right contacts to open the temples of justice.
For LSC Board swearing-in ceremonies, American Bar Association receptions, and other special events, we would often find ourselves in the rarified air of the United States Supreme Court. During those occasions, I had the opportunity to meet Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonia Sotomayor, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Elena Kagan.
Justice Elena Kagan had just been sworn in when I met her in late 2010. Appointed by President Obama to fill the Stevens vacancy, she had a close professional relationship with Dean Minnow having clerked with her in the Marshall chambers and preceded her as the first female Dean of Harvard Law. She went on to become the first female solicitor general of the US and only the fourth woman to become a member of the US Supreme Court.
Like political junkies everywhere, I had followed her confirmation hearings and had loved the fact that pieces of her persona clearly passed the “would you like to have a beer with” test. Cigar smoking poker player who loved a good game of softball; what was not to like? She was also reported to have a well-developed sense of humor. So, when I met her at the Court, I thought it was worth taking a risk.
Standing with a group of my colleagues after a board swearing in at the court, I had the opportunity to chat with Justice Kagan. After congratulations on her new position and some stiff formal remarks routine for such events, I injected, “may I ask you what might seem to be a strange question?”
She maintained a pleasant smile, though a furrowed brow denoted a slight wariness. She answered, “why sure, go ahead”.
“Do you happen to drive a yellow VW Beetle?” I asked.
“Well, I did up ‘til a couple of weeks ago; now I get driven around. Why?”
I had come this far in the conversation and knew I was now hurdling through the air toward the ground. So here goes…
“About a month ago I got cut off on Independence Avenue by someone (at this point in the question the Justice is already laughing out loud) driving a yellow VW Beetle and I swear the woman behind the wheel looked a lot like you.”
Now bending over with laughter, she said, “So were you like, who the f**k does she think she is?”
The F bomb from the lips of a robed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court cracked the protocol sound barrier and for a split second left us shocked into silence. But my colleagues and I soon joined in loud, relieved laughter and folks all over the room were looking in our direction.
“I guess that you are one DC driver glad that I have a chauffeur now”, Kagan said with the perfect smile and twinkle in her eye.
That was when we had this picture taken.
You want your heroes to be human beings, and Justice Elena Kagan passed my cheeky test that memorable day with flying colors.