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Kozinski is known for his larger-than-life personality—in and out the courtroom—and for his plain-language legal opinions. He has published many essays, articles, and reviews in numerous publications, such as Slate, the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, and the New Republic. He also may be the only American jurist to openly admit to being a contestant on ''The Dating Game.''
Kozinski’s opinions are the stuff of legal legend. His 1990 opinion in US v. Syufy contained 215 movie titles woven into the text. Numerous articles were published about the opinion, and it was reprinted in the BYU Law Review with all the movie titles underlined. In 2003, Kozinski wrote a dissent to the Ninth Circuit’s opinion in US v. Ramirez-Lopez, in which the conviction of an illegal alien was upheld. Kozinski’s dissent actually prompted the federal prosecutor to drop the charges, and the man was released from prison after serving three years. In his dissent, Kozinski presented a fictional conversation between the defendant and his lawyer about how the law was upheld but justice was denied. The unusual format, as well as the content of the text, prompted a stir in the legal community.
While Kozinski’s name was frequently mentioned as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court in the early ‘90s during the first Bush administration, some political pundits now say he is too controversial to make the shortlist for the top court. It’s not something that Kozinski worries about. ''You can’t spend too much time thinking about these things,'' Kozinski says, dismissively. ''I’m too busy with my job.''
His job is considerable. The Ninth Circuit is the largest of the federal circuits, encompassing nine Western states. He maintains chambers in Pasadena, but travels to many of the circuit’s states to hear more than 500 cases a year. Kozinski doesn’t mind the workload. In fact, he relishes it. In his opinion, being a judge is ''the best job in the world…you don’t have to worry about getting clients or fighting with your partners or any of that. It’s like having your own little law office, and you do law all the time.'' He adds, ''You don’t have any business development. You just open the courthouse doors in the morning, and the clients come in. They beat down the door.''
Kozinski says that the decision to become a judge was motivated mostly by opportunity. ''I was in the government. The administration at the time was appointing judges, and you don’t always have a chance to get an appointment, so that seemed to be my time.'' He does admit that his clerkships influenced him. ''I clerked, so it was always in the back of my mind. You have to grab it when it comes along.''
Few could argue that Kozinski hasn’t made the most of his opportunities. Born in Bucharest, Romania, in 1950, he immigrated to the United States with his parents, who were both Holocaust survivors. He grew up in Los Feliz (a Los Angeles neighborhood) and received both his undergraduate degree and J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles.
After graduating from law school, Kozinski won two impressive federal clerkships: one with then-Ninth Circuit Judge Anthony Kennedy and a second one for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren E. Burger. After a few years in private practice, he joined the White House Counsel’s office during the Reagan years. When the Federal Claims Court was formed, Kozinski lobbied heavily for the chief judge slot and was appointed to the position by President Reagan in 1982. Three years later, Reagan upped the ante and named Kozinski to the Ninth Circuit, making him, at 35, the youngest federal appeals judge in the country.
Asked if his life is representative of the American dream, Kozinski replies, ''I’ve never really thought about it, but I think so. I think there are many versions of the American dream, and I’m certainly living one of them.'' He goes on to note that the U.S. offers more choices to immigrants than other countries do. ''There are few other places in the world—where if you came from the outside as a complete stranger—where you would have as good a chance as anybody here. That’s an unusual thing, and it’s pretty much unique to the United States.''
But Kozinski is quick to point out that being given a chance to succeed is only the first step to success. ''That is quite different from saying that everybody who comes here will succeed very well, or even that people who were born here will succeed as well as they would like to. What the American dream is, is that you will not be excluded by being a stranger. What you make of it depends on how hard you try—and what you do and how dedicated you are to it.''
With the nation currently focusing on Supreme Court nominations, questions about the influence of politics on the legal process are flying fast and furious. Kozinski has a definite opinion about the relationship between the two fields. ''Law is politics,'' he says. ''The point of view of the judges is political. It has always been political.'' He continues, ''It’s a political process done by the President, who selects people in part for political reasons, and they are confirmed by the Senate, who also have some political ideological reasons, to a large extent. So, I don’t think anyone should be surprised by the fact that the process is a political process.''
Having seen just about everything in his more than 20 years on the bench, Kozinski expects that civil liberty will continue to be a hot-button topic in the future for the nation and the courts. Citing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Kozinski says, ''If it [terrorism] becomes a more constant threat, we’re going to see some real challenges to our perceptions of an open society and our civil liberties. We have a very open society, and government does not go nearly as far as it could in restricting personal freedoms,'' he says. ''But when people get scared, they value security more and freedom less. They are willing to give up some freedom for more security. That’ll present a real challenge to our justice system and to our way of life.''
While there is considerable concern as to the constitutionality of infringing civil liberties in the name of security, Kozinski states that he doesn’t see an inherent conflict. ''I don’t think the government has gone nearly as far as the Constitution would allow it,'' he says. ''We don’t really have cameras on street corners, as they do in England. I don’t think there’s anything in the Constitution that would prohibit that, but I think the people in the United States find that kind of thing creepy.''
Finding the balance between what is allowed by our Constitution and what is not is part of the puzzle that Kozinski so enjoys trying to solve. ''What you have to do is look at the governmental action and judge it against the situation presented at the time, including the exigencies of the situation,'' he explains. ''And then you have to determine, in retrospect, whether what the government did was constitutional or it wasn’t. The government has to act before the courts can adjudicate on the constitutionality of their actions.''
Focused on solving the questions of each case that appears before him, Kozinski says he is content with his current position. ''It’s a job that keeps on renewing itself. It doesn’t become old, because it’s like human experience: It’s always a little bit different.'' He maintains that his career goals are simple. ''I want to do this job well. I just want to do it well.''
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