It’s not a question commonly asked of Supreme Court justices—“Who is your favorite comic book superhero and why?”—but when Fordham Law 1L student Katherine Ballington asked it of Elena Kagan, who was at Fordham Law on February 4, 2019, to talk with students and accept the Fordham-Stein Prize, Kagan was quick with her answer: “It’s got to be Spider-Man.”
Kagan’s response will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the majority ruling she wrote in Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment—a case involving the payment of royalties to the inventor of a “web-slinging toy”—in which the justice had great fun peppering her writing with Spider-Man references. “What we can decide, we can undecide,” Kagan writes at one point, “[b]ut stare decisis teaches that we should exercise that authority sparingly … with great power there must also come—great responsibility.”
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Kagan’s affinity for Spidey makes a lot of sense given the trajectory of her life and career. Like Peter Parker, Kagan grew up in New York City, excelled in the academic sphere, and had a passion for public service, contributing to the common good in whatever way she could. In Parker’s case, this contribution came in the form of his using his superpowers to fight crime. Kagan, on the other hand, has used her formidable intellectual powers to carry on what she sees as her greatest responsibility: to teach.
On the bench as a Supreme Court justice, in the classroom as a University of Chicago law professor in the 1990s, and as dean of Harvard Law School in the mid-2000s, Kagan has emphasized education above all. A graduate of Princeton, Oxford, and Harvard Law, Kagan told her audience of Fordham Law students, “For 15 years, at two different parts of my life, I would go into a classroom filled with people like you: really smart people, really interested and engaged people, people who don’t know a lot about the subject matter yet.”
What that means for Kagan is teaching in a way that will help her audience understand in the moment then have that knowledge stick with them for a long time to come.
“There are ways of writing and speaking and teaching that are sort of sticky … even if you tried to forget them, you couldn’t,” Kagan says.
Besides bringing that stickiness trick to the classroom, Kagan also brings it to the Supreme Court, as in the aforementioned references to her favorite superhero in her Kimball opinion: “… the decision’s close relation to a whole web of precedents means that reversing it could threaten others.”
It’s clear that above all, Kagan is an educator at heart. As she told Fordham Law students: “What I think about when I write an opinion is teaching.”