This legal-literary essay engages the current social and jurisprudential moment, encapsulated by the hashtag #metoo. It focuses on the allegations, made in the first week of December 2017, that Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski verbally sexually harassed former law clerks Emily Murphy and Heidi Bond. I wrote the lioness’s share of the piece during December 10–11—that is, in the days before news outlets reported that other women complained of Kozinski touching them on the thigh or breast while propositioning them for sex or discussing recent sexual encounters—and concluded that Kozinski was unlikely to face impeachment or meaningful judicial censure, but that he should nevertheless resign because his maintenance of his judicial position was untenable.
What occurred next proved a shocking installation in the annals of American judicial history: After hiring feminist icon Susan Estrich as counsel and asserting that the claims against him were “not true,” Judge Kozinski did retire on December 18, 2017, explaining that he could not “be an effective judge and simultaneously fight this battle. . . . Nor would such a battle be good for [his] beloved federal judiciary.”
Beyond qualifying me, for the first time in my life, more as a baffled Hildegard von Bingen than as a grouchy Cassandra, the most notable aspect of my essay is its form. It is auto-fiction, composed in the style of a letter of recommendation that an unnamed U.S. law professor attempts to write for a student who seeks a clerkship with Judge Kozinski during those frenzied and confusing first weeks of December. The “letter” also contains editorial comment flags, written by an unidentified colleague.
The “foul papers” style of this letter permits an expression of the intense emotion catalyzed by the allegations against Judge Kozinski, and also allows us to consider the double bind that law professors and law students find themselves in with regard to clerkship applications tendered within a legal culture shaped by male dominance and white supremacy. Further, the document’s footnotes denote the copious subtext that can lie beneath the surface of oppressed people’s sometimes strangled speech. The employment of the comment flags allows for a certain amount of “cross talk” to this outpouring, critiques that mainly express the position of the hegemonic power structure (except for some gadfly citations to Janet Halley, Jacob Gersen, and Jeannie Suk). In these comment flags, we can see how even the most basic aspects of legal discourse (Bluebook conventions; formatting;professionalism) encourage denial of the emotional disorganization and rage that flow from sexual harassment and other kinds of oppression. We also can discern how legal discourse’s obsession with “relevance” stymies the engagement of racial, class, and queer intersectionalities. Additionally, it is worth noting that some of these comment flags ask hard and valuable questions.
Together, this contest of voices and perspectives interrogates why calls for Kozinski’s resignation were “off the wall” on December 8—that is, that they were so unthinkable that he could gleefully brush them off during that first week of the month—but legitimate on December 18. N.B.: The piece is written as if it is still December 11, just after the allegations of verbal harassment were reported, but before the complaints about physical touching came out in national news. That is, it is “written” in the moments before Judge Kozinski’s reputation suffered irreparable blows, and his remained a sought-after clerkship despite longstanding rumors and complaints of his misogyny.
In my efforts to harness the legal-literary style to uncover the effects and constructions of oppression, I take inspiration from Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (1993), Richard Delgado’s Storytelling for Oppositionists and Others: A Plea for Narrative, 87 Michigan Law Review 2411 (1989), and Patricia Williams' the Alchemy of Race and Rights (1992). I also build upon Kathryn Abrams and Hila Keren’s Who’s Afraid of Law and the Emotions? 94 MINN. L. REV. 1997 (1998).
Yxta M. Murray,
Draft of a Letter of Recommendation to the Honorable Alex Kozinski, Which I Guess I'm Not Going to Send Now,
Mich. J. Gender & L.
Available at: https://repository.law.umich.edu/mjgl/vol25/iss1/3