WASHINGTON : US President Barack Obama`s pick to fill a second US Supreme Court vacancy, Elena Kagan, faces her first confirmation hearing on Monday amid political tensions rubbed raw by looming elections.
"It is a highly charged partisan environment. We are a few months from an election. There is going to be enormous pressure, political pressure, to divide up on a partisan basis," top Obama advisor David Axelrod said Friday.
Kagan, who as US solicitor general has represented the Obama administration before the court, will go before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 12:30 pm (1630 GMT) for the first of several grillings on her record and judicial views.
If approved by the panel, the nomination would then head to the full Senate, where a simple majority of the 100 seats is needed to confirm Kagan as just the fourth woman to sit on the nine-justice court in its 221-year history.
If confirmed, she would be the first non-judge in nearly four decades to reach the summit of US justice, and at 50 would be the youngest member of the court.
The White House and its Democratic allies have said they would like to see Kagan confirmed as liberal standard bearer John Paul Stevens`s replacement before the month-long August recess, in time for the court`s fall session.
Democrats and their two independent allies control 59 of the 100 seats, 60 votes are required to ensure the ability to overrun any parliamentary delaying tactics -- and the White House predicted Kagan would win Republican backing.
"There will be many Republicans who will vote for this nomination, but how many I don`t know," Axelrod told reporters on a conference call. "We anticipate that once these hearings are done, that she would take her seat on the court."
Republicans and allied conservative groups have been attacking Kagan`s record since her May 10 nomination, tarring her as a hyper-partisan activist who would not respect US gun rights and would resist restrictions on access to abortions if confirmed to the lifetime post.
"Elena Kagan`s record raises concerns that she will be a reliable vote against Americans` right to keep and bear arms," Republican Senator John Cornyn, a member of the committee, said in a statement Friday.
They have also zeroed in on her support, as dean of the Harvard Law School, for limiting US military recruiters` access to its students because of a Pentagon ban on gays serving openly in the US armed forces.
Looming November mid-term elections will only serve to stoke raging partisan passions surrounding the court, which as final arbiter of the US Constitution is called to rule on volatile issues including gun rights and abortion.
"Republicans will be under a lot more pressure from their interest groups and `base` voters to put up a much stronger fight against her than they would in a non-election year," said John Ullyot, a Republican strategist who served seven years as a senior Senate aide.
Ullyot also noted that events like the Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster and turmoil in Afghanistan, the US public has yet to really tune in the court battle, perhaps heightening the importance of the hearings.
"She has no judicial record, so on the one hand it`s harder to attack her, but on the other hand it`s easier to define her," he told AFP. "It`s a double-edged sword.:"
A recent public opinion poll by NBC television and the Wall Street Journal found that 29 percent supported Kagan`s confirmation and 23 percent opposed it -- with a whopping 47 percent who said they "don`t know enough" to say.
Kagan -- who received the American Bar Association`s highest rating of unanimously well qualified for the court -- would be the second justice named by Obama after Sonia Sotomayor, meaning the president`s influence on the court could be felt for decades after he leaves office.
A 1981 graduate of Princeton University, Kagan completed her studies at Harvard in 1986. She namely clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall before entering private practice from 1989 to 1991.
She and Obama both taught law in Chicago, and Kagan worked in former US president Bill Clinton`s administration.
BDST: 0842 HRS , June 27, 2010