WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama will nominate Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, a person familiar with the president's thinking said Sunday night.
The move positions the court to have three female justices for the first time in history.
Known as sharp and politically savvy, Kagan has led a blazing legal career: first female dean of Harvard Law School, first woman to serve as the top Supreme Court lawyer for any administration, and now first in Obama's mind to succeed legendary Justice John Paul Stevens.
At 50 years old, Kagan would be the youngest justice on the court, one of many factors working in her favor. She has the chance to extend Obama's legacy for a generation.
Kagan must first win Senate confirmation.
A source close to the selection process said a central element in Obama's choice was Kagan's reputation for bringing together people of competing views and earning their respect.
Kagan came to the fore as a candidate who had worked closely with all three branches of government, a legal mind with both a sense of modesty and sense of humor. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss factors that led to Kagan's impending nomination.
Kagan has clerked for Thurgood Marshall, worked for Bill Clinton and earned a stellar reputation as a student, teacher and manager of the elite academic world. Her standing has risen in Obama's eyes as his government's lawyer before the high court over the last year.
Yet Kagan would be the first justice without judicial experience in almost 40 years. All of the three other finalists she beat out for the job are federal appeals court judges, and all nine of the current justices served on the federal bench before being elevated.
Kagan's fate will be up to a Senate dominated by Democrats, who with 59 votes have more than enough to confirm her, even though they are one shy of being to halt any Republican stalling effort.
For the second straight summer, the nation can expected an intense Supreme Court confirmation debate even though, barring a surprise, Kagan is likely to emerge as a justice.
Supreme Court justices wield enormous power over the daily life of Americans. Any one of them can cast the deciding vote on matters of life and death, individual freedoms and government power. Presidents serve four-year terms; justices have tenure for life.
Republicans have shown no signs in advance that they would try to prevent a vote on Kagan, but they are certain to grill her in confirmation hearings over her experience, her thin record of legal writings and her objections to the military's policy about gays.
When she was confirmed as solicitor general in 2009, only seven Republicans backed her.
Democrats went 15 years without a Supreme Court appointment until Obama chose federal appellate judge Sonia Sotomayor last year to succeed retiring Justice David Souter. Just 16 months in office, Obama has a second opportunity with Kagan, under different circumstances.
Obama's decision last year centered much on the compelling narrative of Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, who grew up in a housing project and overcame hardship.
This year, Obama particularly wanted someone who could provide leadership and help sway fellow justices toward a majority opinion. The president has grown vocal in his concern that the conservative-tilting court is giving too little voice to average people.
Kagan is known for having won over liberal and conservative faculty at the difficult-to-unite Harvard Law School, where she served as dean for nearly six years.