A worldview that suggests there is no such thing as a line

Dahlia Lithwick on being both victim and accomplice of one of those men.

She first met Judge Alex Kozinski in 1996, when she was clerking for another judge. She doesn’t remember what they talked about but she does remember “feeling quite small and very dirty.”

Without my prompting, my former co-clerk described this interaction in an email to me this week. “He completely ignored me and appeared to be undressing you with his eyes,” he wrote. “I had never seen anyone ogle another person like that and still have not seen anything like it. Was so uncomfortable to watch, and I wasn’t even the subject of the stare.”

Later she had occasion to talk to him on the phone and he asked her what she was wearing.

For the 20 intervening years, I have promised myself that if Judge Kozinski was ever to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a Supreme Court confirmation hearing, I would testify about the dozens of conversations I’d had over the years with other clerks and lawyers about Kozinski’s behavior, about the strange hypersexualized world of transgressive talk and action that embodied his chambers. It turns out, it didn’t take a confirmation hearing to kick off this conversation. On Dec. 8, the Washington Postpublished the stories of six women—two of them, Heidi Bondand Emily Murphy, brave enough to go on the record—alleging that Kozinski had harassed them when they clerked or otherwise worked for him, or when they clerked for another 9th Circuit judge. Bond says Kozinski pulled up pornography on a computer in his chambers and asked if it aroused her. One accuser spoke of him looking “her body up and down ‘in a less-than-professional way.’ ” Another reported about his fixation on the idea that she should exercise naked.

In a statement to the Post, Kozinski said, “I have been a judge for 35 years and during that time have had over 500 employees in my chambers. I treat all of my employees as family and work very closely with most of them. I would never intentionally do anything to offend anyone and it is regrettable that a handful have been offended by something I may have said or done.”


There’s family and family; there’s work closely and work closely. Claiming one would never intentionally do anything to offend anyone is weaselly, because intentions are only as good as they are. Millions of men have apparently made zero effort to understand how women in general tend to feel about sexual overtures in the workplace, and in that context “intentionally” really doesn’t mean much. It’s possible for instance to insult people without exactly intending to, but maybe there’s an attention or effort or generosity gap there. And speaking of that, “it is regrettable that a handful have been offended” is remarkably insulting as well as callous. He doesn’t know it’s only a handful. You’d think “#MeToo” would have taught people that by now.

And the guy’s a judge. Wouldn’t you think judges would have a better understanding of power differentials than that?

But Lithwick finds it hard to put a name to what he did.

In so many of his interactions with me, and conversations around me, Judge Kozinski has always gone one step over the line of appropriate sexual discourse. At the same time, he pushes a worldview that suggests there is no such thing as a line. Both personally and in his jurisprudence, I don’t think he believes that porn is porn, or that sex talk is problematic in the workplace. His acts of darting back and forth into deep sexual taboo became a natural experiment in who would live there with him. But because he is powerful, and because relationships with him are proximate to yet more power, those in his circle got dragged along into a world that diminishes and belittles women. For more evidence of this, you can read this diary entry he wrote for Slate in 1996, describing an outing with an unnamed clerk to attend a lingerie party.

He’s “sex positive” and he’s casting the “handful” who were “offended” as sex negative aka prudes.

Lithwick regrets not speaking up before.

I have seen Judge Kozinski dozens of times in the past two decades, moderated his panels, sat next to him at high-powered, high-status events and dinners. My husband will tell you he once fielded a call from the judge to my home, in which Kozinski described himself as my “paramour.” I have, on every single such occasion, been aware that part of his open flouting of empathy or care around gender was a show of juvenile, formulaic bad-assery designed to co-opt you into the bargain. We all ended up colluding to pretend that this was all funny or benign, and that, since everyone knew about it, it must be OK. It never was.

Much of bro culture is about exactly that – a show of juvenile, formulaic bad-assery that casts dissenters as prudes.

But now it’s 2017, and along with thinking about Heidi Bond, Emily Murphy, and those who came forward anonymously, I am also thinking about those who opted not to apply for clerkships with him, sidestepping an opportunity to get within close range of a coveted Supreme Court clerkship. Like others who have now come forward, I had told young female law students not to clerk for him.

I am thinking about the hundreds of plaintiffs in the discrimination and harassment suits he heard in the years he was on the bench. I am thinking of all the ways in which “open secrets” become their own spheres of truth, in which the idea that “everybody knew” something awful absolved all of us of the burden of doing anything. The former Kozinski and 9th Circuit clerks I’ve spoken to in recent days feel heartsick, as I do, that for the sake of our own careers and professional legitimacy we continued to go to the dinners and moderate the panels, all the while hoping this story would break someday and we’d be off the hook. Some of these clerks are still encumbered by the norms that constrained Bond, norms that stipulate that clerks must not speak out against or question their judges, norms to which Kozinski insisted strict adherence—and norms that, it must be said, are insane on their face if they prevent reports of open sexual harassment.

Do read the whole piece. Read it two or three times. It’s tragic and depressing and true, so read it over and over.

For years, I excused myself because I believed that the casual degradation of women that emanated from Judge Kozinski’s orbit was the death rattle of an old America: a symbol of the sad, broken longing for the world of Mad Men, a world that ended as soon as women reached parity with men in law school. Donald Trump and his foot soldiers are proof that this old America is very much alive, and that it’s in fact a full-scale project to treat women as trivial and ornamental and to hold them back. It keeps brilliant women from accessing power and dismisses other brilliant women as hysterics—the “nutty and slutty” character assassination used to trash Anita Hill. It’s disturbing to realize that, even today, the main markers I relied on to confirm Kozinski’s bad behavior were the shocked reactions of normal, good men: my husband, my friend, my co-clerk. Sure, I felt dirty after each interaction, but my feelings didn’t feel like enough.

We’re told so often and so loudly that they’re not.

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