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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan speaking with President Liz Magill on Oct. 21, 2022 (Photo by Eric Sucar).

Newly inaugurated Penn President Liz Magill and United States Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan spoke about the importance of compromise on the court and free speech on college campuses at a University event on Friday. 

The academic symposium — which followed Magill's inauguration, formally commencing her tenure as Penn's ninth president — was held in Irvine Auditorium before an invite-only audience of around 900 attendees. Magill and Kagan spoke for nearly 90 minutes and touched on lighthearted and heavier topics alike — including some allusions to the climate of the court amid the fallout from its recent overturning of Roe v. Wade. 

Kagan herself is a former university administrator — she was appointed the first female dean of Harvard Law School in 2003 and held the position until 2009. She has served on the court for 12 years and worked closely with the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whom Magill worked for as a law clerk from 1996 to 1997.

“Liz and I share a bunch of things in common, we go back a long way, and I can tell the entire Penn community that they have got the real deal here,” Kagan told the crowd. “You are going to get a lot of innovative ideas, a lot of good sense and judgment, and a lot of integrity all wrapped up in one. You are a lucky University.”

In response to a question from Magill about how the court gets along amid disagreement, Kagan said that “some years are better than others” in terms of the ability to have greater work collaboration. She mentioned that the court has continued to hold weekly lunches where talk about cases is off-limits, but she is still “clear-eyed” about the current challenges.

“Time will tell whether this is a court that can get back to finding common ground, to ratcheting down the level of decision-making so we can reach compromises,” Kagan said.

Last term, the court overturned Roe v. Wade, ending nearly 50 years of precedent and eliminating the constitutional right to have an abortion. The decision has sparked protests and strong reactions at Penn and throughout Philadelphia. Magill and Kagan did not directly address the decision, which Kagan and two other justices opposed. 

“I think the audience knows the questions they would love to ask, I’m not going to ask you,” Magill said, appearing to hint at more contentious topics.

Kagan — who Magill called the court's “dissenter-in-chief” — responded that she “wouldn't be able to talk about that.” She prompted continued applause in the crowd when speaking about the stare decisis doctrine, which says that courts will adhere to precedent when making rulings.

Kagan warned that judges who are making “jolts to the system” are turning the court away from its role as a court and toward being a political institution.

“You give people a right, and then you take that right away,” Kagan said. “Well, in the meantime, they’ve understood their lives in a different kind of way. Law should be stable.”

Magill and Kagan also spoke about the issue of free speech on college campuses, which Magill said was a question of frequent conversation. Kagan said that universities play an important role in encouraging robust debate and the exchange of different viewpoints, adding that people should be given “the benefit of the doubt” if they say something that another person disagrees with.

“It’s really important to a democracy that we be able to speak to each other about sensitive issues. If it can't happen in the university, where can it happen?” Kagan said.

The question of free speech has been a contentious debate at Penn this year. Tenured Penn Law professor Amy Wax is currently under a formal University investigation for her conduct, which has included making racist statements inside and outside the classroom. To Wax and her supporters, the investigation represents a threat to tenure protection, which serves as a guard for academics' freedom of speech.

Magill and Kagan concluded the event with a lightning round of questions. Kagan said her favorite show continues to be “The Sopranos.” When Magill asked Kagan what job she would want if she was not on the court, Kagan said it was a question for which Ginsburg — Magill's old boss — always had a distinct answer.

“[She] would say, 'I want to be a diva,'” Kagan said. 

“Yes, she would," Magill replied. "And there are ways in which she was.”