Now she's poised to become a third -- the third woman to sit on the current U.S. Supreme Court, alongside Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. It would make her the fourth woman and the eighth Jew to serve on the court.
If confirmed, Kagan would join two other Jews -- Ginsburg and Justice Stephen Breyer -- and six Catholics on the high court, the first time in history the court has not included a protestant.
President Barack Obama Monday nominated Kagan, who never has been on the bench, to be the 112th justice, replacing retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, 90, who has said he will step down at the end of the current term. At 50, Kagan would become the youngest justice on the court and could serve for decades, providing a counterbalance to Chief Justice John Roberts, The Washington Post said.
The Post said Obama wanted someone without judicial experience to bring a different perspective to the court. That lack of experience also means Kagan has no record of written opinions that could provide fodder in Senate confirmation hearings.
"Through most of my professional life, I've had the simple joy of teaching, of trying to communicate to students why I so loved the law: not just because it's challenging and endlessly interesting, although it certainly is that, but because law matters, because it keeps us safe, because it protects our most fundamental rights and freedoms, and because it is the foundation of our democracy," Kagan said as Obama nominated her.
Kagan's Harvard resume says her particular areas of interest are constitutional and administrative law. She held the Charles Hamilton Houston professorship at Harvard and also taught at the University of Chicago Law School (where she played Chicago-style 16-inch softball, the Chicago Sun-Times reported). During the Clinton administration, she was associate White House counsel.
Kagan was born in New York April 28, 1960, the second of three children, to Gloria Gittelman Kagan and Robert Kagan, Wikipedia reports. She graduated summa cum laude in 1981 from Princeton, earning the Daniel M. Sachs Memorial Scholarship along the way as well as an M.Phil degree from Oxford University in 1983. Her law degree came in 1986 from Harvard where she served as supervisory editor of the Harvard Law Review.
"If this day has just a touch of sadness in it for me, it is because my parents aren't here to share it. They were both, as the president said, the children of immigrants and the first in their families to go to college," Kagan said.
"My father was the kind of lawyer who used his skills and training to represent everyday people and to improve a community.
"My mother was a proud public schoolteacher, as are my two brothers: the kind of teachers whom students remember for the rest of their lives."
Her career began as a law clerk for federal Appellate U.S. Judge Abner Mikva and for the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who nicknamed her "Shorty." There was also a stint in private practice with Williams & Connolly in Washington.
Former President Bill Clinton nominated Kagan to the District of Columbia appellate court in 1999 but then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch refused to schedule a hearing, hoping to hold the vacancy open for a Republican nominee. Roberts eventually filled that vacancy.
However, Hatch signaled last year he might have nothing against Kagan as a possible candidate.
In an interview with a conservative North Dakota radio host, Hatch said Republicans would face a dilemma in opposing two women -- Sotomayor and Kagan -- heading the list to replace then-retiring Justice David Souter, the Huffington Post reported.
Sotomayor, a Latina, was tapped as Souter's replacement by the president and took her seat on the high court at the start of the current term.
Hatch told his interviewer in May 2009: "You have to admit Elena Kagan is a brilliant woman. She is a brilliant lawyer. If (the president picks her for Souter's seat), it is a real dilemma for people. And she will undoubtedly say that she will abide by the rule of law."
During her tenure at Harvard, Kagan concentrated on improving student satisfaction -- building new facilities and changing the first-year curriculum. One of the perks she added was free morning coffee.
At her confirmation hearings for solicitor general, Kagan argued for the expansion of battlefield law, saying someone suspected of helping finance al-Qaida could be detained without trial even if the person was not captured on an actual battlefield, the New York Times has reported. She also is on record as opposing judicial activism and saying judges should separate their personal feelings from constitutional interpretation.
"The Constitution generally imposes limitations on government rather than establishes affirmative rights and thus has what might be thought of as a libertarian slant. I fully accept this traditional understanding, and if I am confirmed as solicitor general, I would expect to make arguments consistent with it," she said in testimony.
Kagan was confirmed as U.S. solicitor general by the Senate 61-31 in March 2009.
Kagan made her first appearance at the Supreme Court as solicitor general Sept. 9, 2009, unsuccessfully arguing Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, which opened the way for unlimited corporate funding of political broadcasts in elections.
Among Kagan's published works are: "Presidential Administration," Harvard Law Review, 2001; "Chevron's Nondelegation Doctrine," Supreme Court Review, 2001, and "Private Speech, Public Purpose: The Role of Governmental Motive in First Amendment Doctrine," University of Chicago Law Review, 1996.