Just How Chicago is New York's Elena Kagan?

What does Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court mean for Chicago, since she worked as a law professor at U of C?

Not much. Kagan only spent four years here -- not even enough time to stop rooting for the Mets. But it does mean a lot for Hyde Park, further validating the neighborhood’s belief that it’s an enclave of the East Coast, set down on Lake Michigan.

There’s a saying about Hyde Parkers that even people in the neighborhood laugh at: they read two newspapers, the Hyde Park Herald and The New York Times. Richard Epstein, a U of C law professor, once said “I don’t consider myself a Chicagoan. I consider myself a Hyde Parker.”

When Barack Obama moved to Chicago from Manhattan, to work as a community organizer on the South Side, he settled immediately in Hyde Park and bought a membership at the Seminary Co-op Bookstore. After his return from Harvard Law School, he found it the perfect place for a non-native to launch a political career. Hyde Park welcomes outsiders, especially if they come from the Ivy League.

“We’ve got a lot of people who came from Harvard,” one former 5th Ward committeeman once said.

In other words, Kagan’s East Coast, Ivy League background -- which seems to be a requirement for Supreme Court justices now -- hasn’t really been leavened by a turn in the Heartland. Like Cambridge and Manhattan, Hyde Park is a pit stop for D.C. up-and-comers. (Kagan actually lived in Lincoln Park, but that’s another here-and-gone neighborhood where no one is going to ask you to borrow fi’ dollars.)

The man who helped make this happen, though, is Abner Mikva, who arrived at U of C from Milwaukee, and decided to make a political career here. Mikva served five terms in Congress, first from Hyde Park, then from the North Shore (same difference), before spending 13 years on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where Kagan clerked for him. When Mikva was President Clinton’s White House Counsel, he brought in Kagan as one of his deputies.

Mikva returned home after his Washington sojourn, settling in a lakefront penthouse where the doorman calls him “Judge Mikva.” He never forgot about Chicago -- at least, he never forgot about Hyde Park.

Kagan wanted to come back to U of C after the Senate refused to confirm her for a judgeship, but the law faculty thought her heart was back east. So Kagan settled for becoming dean of Harvard Law School. She’d done her time in Hyde Park, and was ready for the big leagues.

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