WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama Monday nominated Elena Kagan, a "trailblazing" legal scholar, to the US Supreme Court, seeking to foster decades of liberal pragmatism on the conservative-dominated bench.
Obama called on the US Senate to swiftly confirm Kagan, 50, the US solicitor general and former dean of Harvard Law school, in a bipartisan fashion, despite the fevered political climate ahead of mid-term elections in November.
"I have selected a nominee who I believe embodies... excellence, independence, integrity and passion for the law, and who can ultimately provide that same kind of leadership on the court," Obama said at the White House.
Kagan would be the fourth women to serve on the court, and the first non judge to ascend to the summit of US justice for 40 years.
Democrats praised Kagan as "razor sharp" and impeccably qualified for the lifetime appointment on the nine-member bench, but Republicans promised to vigorously vet a "surprising" choice, citing her lack of judicial pedigree.
Kagan's nomination represents Obama's second bid to reshape the court, which adjudicates critical questions of US political, legal and social life, for years to come, following his appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor last year.
He said he was pleased that Kagan, if confirmed, would be the third woman on the current court, saying the bench, to which he appointed Sotomayor as the first Hispanic justice, would reflect American life as never before.
"Elena is widely regarded as one of the nation's foremost legal minds," Obama said, referring to his pick as "my friend."
"She is a trailblazing leader, said Obama, arguing Kagan's "fair-mindedness" and "skill as a consensus builder" would replace some of the wisdom lost with the retirement of the court's retiring top liberal John Paul Stevens.
Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff Ron Klain, who took part in the nominee search, said Kagan would probably have to recuse herself from around 18 cases before the court that she had worked to prepare as solicitor general.
Klain described her as "pragmatic" and clearly a "progressive" apparently hoping that liberal groups would see in Kagan in a similar vein to Stevens, 90, who had served for 34 years.
Kagan thanked Obama for the "honor of a lifetime" and said she "so loved the law."
"It's challenging and endlessly interesting ... 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 was easily confirmed last year to serve as solicitor general, to argue the US government's case before Chief Justice John Roberts and the very Supreme Court associate justices she now hopes to join.
But Republicans were already laying the ground for a political battle over her confirmation, which they will likely lose, but hope to turn into a political cause celebre in the run-up to congressional polls in November.
"She is a surprising choice from a president who has emphasized the importance of understanding 'how the world works and how ordinary people live,'" said Republican Senator John Cornyn, citing Kagan's liberal academic background.
"Ms Kagan is likewise a surprising choice because she lacks judicial experience. Most Americans believe that prior judicial experience is a necessary credential for a Supreme Court Justice."
Conservative Republican Senator Jon Kyl warned Kagan may not get the same easy confirmation ride as she got as solicitor general.
"As I made clear when I supported her confirmation as solicitor general, a temporary political appointment is far different than a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court," he said.
Some liberal and legal interest groups had pressured the president to choose someone from outside the "judicial monastery" so may favor Obama's pick, which was widely flagged in advance.
Others however are concerned about Kagan's stance on civil liberties in the legal battle against terrorism.
Obama said in April, after praising the tenure of Stevens, that he would chose a replacement who "knows that in a democracy, powerful interests must not be allowed to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens."
A 1981 graduate of Princeton University, Kagan completed her studies at Havard in 1986. Among her jobs, she clerk for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, before entering private practice from 1989 to 1991.
She and Obama were professors of law in Chicago, and Kagan worked in Bill Clinton's administration.