Newly-installed Justice Kagan asks first questions from bench as member of high court

Monday, October 4, 2010

Kagan asks questions at first high court argument

WASHINGTON — This time Elena Kagan got to ask the questions. With her confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court now a part of history, the court’s newest justice — and third woman — took a direct role for the first time in a case before the court.

Less than 20 minutes into the court’s new term Monday, Kagan asked her first questions during a Supreme Court argument. In this case, the issue centered on a debtor’s plan to get out of bankruptcy.

When that argument ended, Kagan departed because she is not taking part in the other case that was argued Monday. It is one of two dozen cases that Kagan is out of because of her work at the Justice Department before joining the high court in August.

In the first hour, though, she was among eight justices who asked questions. The ninth, Justice Clarence Thomas hasn’t asked a question in more than four years.

The court was trying to figure out whether someone in bankruptcy who owned a car outright could still shield some income from creditors by claiming an allowance for a car payment. Like many seemingly easy issues that come to the court, this one has divided federal appeals courts.

Kagan wanted to know if the debtor could instead claim the gas and maintenance expenses that go along with having a car.

At another point, Kagan wondered whether someone with a car that had 200,000 miles on it “and was going to break down in the next five years” could plausibly claim the allowance.

The court did not appear to lean one way or the other in the argument between a consumer on one side and a credit card company on the other. At one point, Chief Justice John Roberts suggested the arguments on both sides would lead to absurd results.

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