In 2009, while seeking confirmation as solicitor general, Elena Kagan gave a seemingly forthright written response when asked in writing by Sen. John Cornyn: “Given your rhetoric about the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – you called it ‘a profound wrong – a moral injustice of the first order’ – let me ask this basic question: Do you believe that there is a federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage?”
Kagan’s entire response: “There is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.”
Not much wiggle room there, you might think. Indeed, some Kagan supporters have cited this response in denouncing suggestions by critics that she might support a new right to same-sex marriage. So can we chalk Kagan up as a vote against same-sex marriage when she faces the issue as a justice? Well, no.
Cornyn clearly intended to ask whether Kagan’s personal view was that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted to guarantee a right to same-sex marriage. But Kagan, when pressed later for clarification of her response, suggested somewhat opaquely that she had only been summarizing case law and public opinion. “I previously answered this question briefly, but (I had hoped) clearly, saying that ‘[t]here is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage,’ ” Kagan wrote in a March 18, 2009, letter to then-GOP Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, now a Democrat. “I meant for this statement to bear its natural meaning. Constitutional rights are a product of constitutional text as interpreted by courts and understood by the nation’s citizenry and its elected representatives. By this measure, which is the best measure I know for determining whether a constitutional right exists, there is no federal constitutional right to same-sex marriage.”