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Messing With Chief Judge Kozinski

Chief Judge Alex Kozinski at Yale Law School

Last week, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski paid a visit to Yale Law School, where he made two public appearances. He had a Charlie Rose-style conversation with Noah Messing, YLS’s Lecturer in the Practice of Law and Legal Writing, and then he did an event with the Federalist Society, moderated by a current student, Jon Fougner.

Let’s hear what His Honor had to say, about a wide range of topics — his favorite opinion of his, tips for getting ahead in the legal profession, advocates who have impressed him over the years, why you shouldn’t take your mother to your oral argument, and why you should read Playboy (hint: it’s not for the articles)….

Here’s the video for Professor Messing’s chat with Chief Judge Kozinski, entitled Messing With Kozinski:

It’s a very comprehensive interview, isn’t it? I may have to relinquish my title as president of the Alex Kozinski Stalker Club to Professor Messing, who obviously did a tremendous amount of research in advance of the interview. At points in the conversation, he seems to know Chief Judge Kozinski’s life better than the judge himself does, which is impressive.

I recommend watching the interview in its entirety. But if you’re pressed for time, here are some highlights (all times are approximate):

5:48: “entertaining law students is much of the mission of my writing.”

7:40: One of Chief Judge Kozinski’s former clerks, James Burnham, wrote a very interesting law review piece with the judge. Burnham had this to say about the experience: “Co-authoring with Chief Judge Kozinski is like helping a bear go salmon fishing. He’s bigger than you, and better at it than you, so you mostly just try to stay out of the way.”

13:30: The judge describes what makes for a good writing sample.

14:20: Chief Judge Kozinski, when asked about his favorite opinions over the years, states that “I’d have to give Syufy an Oscar for Best Costume.” Judge Kozinski’s opinion in the case, an antitrust action involving movie theaters, contains references to the titles of more than 200 films.

18:56: The judge explains why he likes to read Playboy magazine: for the excellent short fiction.

41:57-43:00: Chief Judge Kozinski, who was appointed to the Ninth Circuit at the tender age of 35, gives advice on how to get a job in government that you’re not qualified for. In a nutshell, flattery will get you everywhere: “You walk up to somebody and say, ‘What are those rumors that you’re going to be Secretary of State? . . . and then they’re in a good mood and you start talking about yourself.”

43:00: At the time that he became the first chief judge of the newly formed Court of Federal Claims, Kozinski had just one trial under his belt, a criminal case in which he represented the defendant. When asked about how the trial turned out, he would respond, “Justice was done.”

51:48: Life tenure has its privileges (most of which involve not having to find and deal with clients).

1:01:00: When is it appropriate to use humor in an opinion? According to Chief Judge Kozinski, who has well-known libertarian leanings (and even stars in libertarian movies), “If it’s against the government, it’s always appropriate. The government needs to be made fun of as much as possible.”

1:04:03: Which kinds of lawyers impress Judge Kozinski? “Generally, Justice Department lawyers and briefs tend to be a cut above — not just in terms of competence, but also in terms of tone and in terms of owning up to mistakes.”

1:05:00-1:07:00: Chief Judge Kozinski offers quick assessments of notable advocates who have argued before him, including Herb Wachtell (“brilliant”), Seth Waxman (“terrific”), Larry Tribe (“wonderful”), and Kathleen Sullivan (“brilliant in an understated kind of way, which is the best kind of brilliant”).

1:07:00-1:09:00: Judge Kozinski’s main advice for advocates: listen more, talk less. Focus intensely on the questions being posed by the judges, not on delivering your prepared remarks. And don’t bring your mother to court; you’ll feel pressure to say things to impress her, as opposed to the things you need to say to win.

1:09:25: “For God’s sake, don’t bring your client to court. If you’re lucky, your client is locked up somewhere.” (Similar to the “don’t bring mom” reasoning; clients want lawyers to make jury arguments on appeal, not arguments that will sway appellate judges.)

1:12:43: One shortcoming of many law clerks is that “they come out of law school so limited in their horizons, in terms of their creativity.”

1:14:45: On why he wrote his colorful concurrence to denial of rehearing en banc in the case of United States v. Alvarez: “I thought someone needed to stand up for lying.” (Chief Judge Kozinski’s perhaps counterintuitive position was ultimately vindicated by the Supreme Court.)

All in all, it’s an excellent interview. You should definitely watch the whole thing if you get the chance.

If you’ve not yet had your fill of Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, flip to the next page for more….

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