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Kagan's picture-perfect record will be tested

Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan has seemingly spent her life preparing for the center stage she is about to take as her Senate confirmation hearing begins Monday.

The Princeton and Harvard Law School graduate's academic resume is picture perfect. Her political mentors have been invariably well placed. And in the seven weeks of serious scrutiny that have followed her nomination by President Obama, no serious impediment has arisen to deny her confirmation.

"So far, this isn't as controversial as some nominees," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., said. "She's very careful."

The buzz over Kagan's nomination on Capitol Hill is more like a murmur. There's debate, but it feels muted. And the Obama administration has no problem with that. Though the administration starts with a built-in confirmation advantage, as the Democrats control 59 Senate seats, White House officials prefer not to rouse any sleeping lions.

A June 3-6 ABC News-Washington Post survey found that 58 percent of those surveyed said Kagan should be confirmed, while 24 percent said she shouldn't. An equally telling poll released June 21 by the Pew Research Center and National Journal found 42 percent of those surveyed were indifferent or didn't know enough about Kagan to say.

The public will learn more during the televised Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that starts Monday afternoon with opening statements and picks up steam Tuesday with Kagan's appearance.

Republicans will press Kagan on military recruiting, asking about her decision to restrict it at Harvard Law School because of the Pentagon's policy that bans gays from serving openly. In an October 2003 e-mail to Harvard students and faculty, Kagan characterized this policy as a "profound wrong" and a "moral injustice of the first order."

Republicans also will hammer away at her relative lack of courtroom experience and will seize on selected statements uncovered in the 160,000 pages of documents and e-mails produced by the National Archives from her days in the Clinton White House.

"Throughout her career, she has demonstrated a willingness to make legal decisions based not on the law but instead on her very liberal politics," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Judiciary Committee's senior Republican.

Democrats will cite Kagan's highest possible "well-qualified" rating from the American Bar Association and the bipartisan support she has received from the eight solicitors general who preceded her in that post.

If confirmed, Kagan, 50, would be the court's youngest member. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the next youngest, is 55. The retiring justice she would replace, John Paul Stevens, turned 90 in April.

Kagan would be the only member of the current court without prior bench experience. She has never worked as a prosecutor and has minimal hands-on pro bono experience. She logged less than three years of private practice with the well-connected firm Williams & Connolly before joining the University of Chicago Law School faculty.

Even some neutral observers say Kagan's lifelong immersion in academia and politics undermines Obama's previously stated intention to reach beyond the "legal monastery" for potential Supreme Court justices.

"He reached out of the monastery and reached into the cathedral," said Richard Lazarus, a law professor at Georgetown University.

Kagan's allies, though, cast her work as the first female dean of Harvard Law School as that of a successful businesswoman. At Harvard, she oversaw an organization with 500-plus employees and a $100 million annual budget.

Kagan abounds in self-confidence. In her six appearances as solicitor general before the Supreme Court, she has never seemed shaken by justices who have at times swatted away her arguments.