There was some suspense at the Supreme Court on November 1, when new Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar spoke for her first appearance in the post. Is her name General Prelogar?
The answer came quickly, when Roberts began argument: “Next we will hear argument in case 21-588, United States v. Texas. He stopped and told the first lawyer to plead in the case: ‘General Prelogar.’
Why was it a thing? After all, women can be generals just like men.
It’s a little complicated. As Steve Vladeck, professor of law at the University of Texas, put it in a tweet that day, “The Solicitor General is not a ‘general’. The word “General” in the title is an adjective, and adjectives are not honorific. “
This provoked a harsh discussion. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to call it GENERAL Prelogar until the wheels drop, ”wrote Melissa Murray, professor at New York University School of Law.
As with almost everything related to the Supreme Court, there is precedent. In May 2009, shortly after Elena Kagan was confirmed as Solicitor General of the United States, the first woman to hold that position, I interviewed her at a restaurant in Penn Quarter. Most of the questions were fleshy, but I only had to ask the “general” question. Here’s the conversation:
Do you like to be called “General Kagan”? Heard you don’t mind.
Kagan: “A few more weeks, and I expect everyone to say hello. But seriously, I’m going to tell you a story. Right after my confirmation [in March], a member of the administrative office of the Court called me to ask if I wanted the judges to call me “general” during the pleadings. It was a very thoughtful thing to give me the choice; I know, for example, that the Attorney General [Janet] Reno didn’t like to be called “general”. But my thought was basically: the judges called SG men “generals” for years and years and years; the first female SG should be called the same.
So, if Prelogar was offered the same choice as Kagan, she opted for “General Prelogar”. Incidentally, Prelogar worked for Kagan during his first term on the Supreme Court.
During the 2009 interview, I also felt compelled to ask Kagan another burning but somewhat trivial question:
I have to ask you if you decided to wear a gown when you argue. A lot of people are wondering.
Kagan: “I’d give you a big scoop if I told you that, Tony. I will just say that I learned last month that this is a very complicated question. There are a lot of people who feel they have an interest in it, although I must note that the judges themselves have made it clear that the choice is entirely mine.
What contribution do you get from the women and men of the Solicitor General’s office?
“I suspect that if I voted in the office it would vote in favor of the dust jacket. And most women in the office now wear the coat themselves. But one of the things I learned as a dean of a law school is that sometimes you don’t take votes. In the end, I’ll decide this one on my own.
In the end, Kagan decided not to wear a dust jacket. Prelogar too.