May 19 2010 12:00 AM

Lansing city attorney got the Socratic treatment from Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan


One day back in 1999 in administrative law class at Harvard University Law School, future Lansing City Attorney Brig Smith was clicking away on his laptop at a game of solitaire while his professor, Elena Kagan, was looking for an answer to a question.

Kagan had called on one student, who failed to answer her question. Then Kagan called on the next student, who was also unprepared.

“She’s getting exasperated, and at one point said, ‘The next person I call one better have been prepared,’” Smith recalled. “All of a sudden, my name comes up, ‘Mr. Smith.’”

Smith quickly clicked out of his solitaire game to answer the question. He recalls success in that instance, and passing the class.

“She would run a classroom in the old school Socratic way, so you had to be prepared and you had to know what you were talking about because you could rest assured that she would be,” he said.

Smith’s former professor (and colleague when he worked in the Clinton White House toward the end of the 1990s) is now a Supreme Court nominee. Some have criticized Kagan’s nomination because she has never been a judge, comparing her to George W. Bush’s failed pick, Harriet Myers. But Smith remembers Kagan as, essentially, a super genius — he used the term “scary smart.”

“I’ve been blessed to meet some truly intelligent people in my time,” he said, noting that while he was at Harvard, he also had professors like Cornel West and Arthur R. Miller. “But I don’t know I’ve met anyone as intelligent as Elena Kagan.”

In administrative law class, Kagan taught Smith and his classmates, among other things, about working between an executive branch and a legislative branch. As the city’s head attorney, Smith has to represent both City Council and Mayor Virg Bernero. For Bernero, he has entered into litigation against the likes of AT&T. On the other hand, he has advised Council on its options in suing Bernero to stop the closing of a city golf course.

He said that whenever his dueling bosses — Council or the administration — ask him a question about power, Kagan’s teachings pop into his head.

Though Smith had Kagan in class at Harvard, he was also her colleague at the White House. There, Smith was on staff and was in charge of vetting candidates for appointments. He did not recall ever interacting with Kagan, but he remembers her being regarded as an outstanding intellect even among other White House “best and brightest” like former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and Chief of Staff John Podesta.

Smith considers Kagan not only a inspiration, but also a friend. In 2007, after the International Municipal Lawyers Association named him the young public lawyer of the year, Kagan wrote him congratulatory note.

“I’m staring at it now, and it’s a thrill,” Smith said. “It would be difficult to find someone of greater intelligence to serve on the Supreme Court.”