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Kagan: Justices not tech savvy, send paper memos

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Elena Kagan says she and her fellow Supreme Court justices aren’t the most tech-savvy group of people and still communicate with one another the same way they did when she was a clerk in 1987: with paper memos.

In an appearance in Providence on Tuesday, Kagan acknowledged the justices have a ways to go to understand technology such as Facebook, Twitter and even email.

“It’s a challenge for us,” Kagan said, while also noting that she herself uses email, goes online and reads blogs.

Kagan, 53, was appointed to the court in 2010 by President Barack Obama. She previously served as solicitor general of the United States and dean of Harvard Law School, among other accomplishments. She is the youngest justice and the one most recently appointed to the court.

When asked whether the justices email one another, Kagan said things are the same as when she clerked for the late Justice Thurgood Marshall three decades ago. She says justices write memos, which are then printed out on ivory paper that looks like it came from the 19th century. The memos are walked around the building by someone called a “chambers aide.”

“The justices are not necessarily the most technologically sophisticated people,” she said, adding that while clerks email one another, “The court hasn’t really ‘gotten to’ email.”

Kagan appeared Tuesday in a conversation with Ted Widmer, a historian and librarian at Brown University who has been an adviser to the Clintons. The event was part of a celebration of the 350th anniversary of Rhode Island’s colonial charter and was hosted by Gov. Lincoln Chafee and sponsored by Roger Williams University School of Law.

Widmer brought up the National Security Agency and Edward Snowden, who leaked classified documents exposing NSA programs that monitor Internet and phone data, suggesting the high court would likely hear more cases related to electronic surveillance.

Kagan said it was hard to predict what cases the court will address in the years to come, but she said she expects there will be new issues related to privacy, emerging technology and electronic snooping.

“I think we’re going to have to be doing a lot of thinking about that,” she said.

Kagan said the justices often turn to their clerks, who are much younger, to help them understand new technologies.

But they also try to learn on their own. In one case, involving violent video games the first year she was on the court, justices who had never played the games before dove in and gave them a try, Kagan said.

“It was kind of hilarious,” she said.

She didn’t say which games they played.