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Federal Judge Retires Amid Allegations Of Sexual Harassment


One of the nation's most prominent judges has stepped down from the bench. Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1985, announced his retirement today, effective immediately. Kozinski's departure comes after at least 15 women, former clerks and others he interacted with on the job, came forward with stories of inappropriate touching and lewd comments. My guest is one of those women, Emily Murphy. Today she's an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings. Welcome.

EMILY MURPHY: Well, thank you for having me, Ray.

SUAREZ: Before we get into the details of your story, let's give our listeners who are not in the law some context. Help us understand Judge Kozinski's stature in the legal world.

MURPHY: I knew him as Chief Judge Kozinski, as he was the chief of the 9th Circuit at the time I was serving as a law clerk to another judge. But his reputation preceded him in law school. And even before that, I was aware of his extremely important contributions to the modern American legal canon. He's a very important writer and thinker. He's written a lot of law review articles and books and publications. He's been an extremely active participant in the legal profession, you know, above and beyond his duties to the judiciary.

SUAREZ: You told The Washington Post recently about an interaction you had with him in 2012. What happened?

MURPHY: It was at the clerk orientation event that all the clerks in the Ninth Circuit attend with all the judges. And I was standing around at a reception before dinner with a group of clerks, some of whom were my friends. And we were all sort of casual athletes at the time, discussing our workout routines. And Judge Kozinski joined our conversation rather abruptly, asked what we were talking about.

And then in an attempt to sort of make light and continue the conversation, I said, oh, it's very nice to work out in the 9th Circuit courthouse as there's no one ever there. And he said, well, if that's the case, then you should work out naked (laughter). People immediately tried to change the subject. It did not work. Chief Judge Kozinski elaborated on how I would work out naked. And it was incredibly humiliating not just to me, I think, but to the other people who witnessed it because they apologized to me after it happened.

SUAREZ: Now, his defenders say this is a man who's eccentric, even inappropriate at times. They see his unfiltered style as a tool for building rapport, as clumsy as it could be. He speaks to his clerks as if they're friends. And maybe that includes some off-color jokes, they say. But these comments are an effort to be friendly or inclusive. What do you make of those defenses?

MURPHY: I can only speak to my personal experience, but it wasn't funny. No one thought it was humorous or on a remotely appropriate subject of conversation as evidenced by the fact that everyone immediately tried to change the subject.

SUAREZ: In your case or others, did the actions go beyond inappropriate to being harmful?

MURPHY: Based on the accounts that I've read in The Washington Post and in other outlets, I think in some circumstances, yes. I think that the accounts of inappropriate touching quite clearly go to something that causes direct harm to people who experienced that. But I also think that to the extent such behavior was known and to the extent that people did not apply to work in Judge Kozinski's chambers, notwithstanding his ability to help place clerks into the chambers of Supreme Court justices, that I think that works a more systemic harm.

This was, as has been reported, not a secret. I had two conversations when I was in law school that I've been since reminded of with women who, myself included, affirmatively did not apply to work for Judge Kozinski because of what was understood to go on in his chambers.

SUAREZ: So what finally led to your decision to share your own story publicly?

MURPHY: I joined a law school faculty earlier this year. And therefore to some extent, I'm no longer practicing law. So I feel and felt and still do feel a professional obligation as an academic to make the legal profession a better place for women and for men who come after me, who are currently my students and who will be the students going forward.

SUAREZ: Now, many in the law, even women who've accused him of harassment, even you, say Kozinski is a brilliant jurist. What do you view his decision to step down from the bench - how should we see this? Is it a positive development?

MURPHY: I don't think there's any winners here. I think this is a tragedy for everybody involved. I think Judge Kozinski - his opinions being what they are, an important part of the legal canon - he's served this country exceptionally well. And I recognize that all judges are human. But the decision to step down was his own, and I think that with immense power and life tenure comes a very high degree of responsibility for personal conduct, especially within the workplace and a training ground for the legal profession.

SUAREZ: Emily Murphy is an associate professor of law at UC Hastings. Professor, thank you.

MURPHY: My pleasure. Thank you, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.