Monday, September 24, 2018

About My Yale Law School Classmate Brett Kavanaugh

Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and I both graduated from Yale Law School in May 1990, along with 165 other overachieving and neurotic classmates. 

I wasn’t planning on writing anything about Judge Kavanaugh, for two reasons:

First, I recently lost my primary election for the Washington Court of Appeals. This loss was yet another unsuccessful attempt to become an appellate judge myself. I figured it’s too soon to invite comparisons between my own painful experience and someone else’s charmed judicial career. It might be triggering. And we already know I suffer from PTSD.

Second, unlike everyone in the greater DC area, I thought I had no information to share about Judge Kavanaugh. To the contrary, he may be the only member of our law school class I never met or interacted with.

My confidence level regarding my non-relationship with Brett Kavanaugh is pretty high.

I’m not merely relying on ancient memories about particular folks’ attendance or nonattendance during three years of legal seminars and intoxicating social events. Subsequent reminders corroborate my recollection. 

Since graduation, Yale’s glossy Alumni News has regularly updated me about various Kavanaugh career milestones: his Supreme Court clerkship, his true-believer service as part of Ken Starr’s dogged impeachment investigation, his work in the second Bush White House. Our class secretaries would forward pictures of George W. Bush hugging him, or his mentor Justice Anthony Kennedy swearing him in as a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. Each time I would pull out our Yale facebook directory, and again examine the black and white portrait. 

“Yep, that’s the guy in my law school class I never met.”

Why did I change my mind and decide to speak out about Judge Kavanaugh’s embattled Supreme Court nomination? Two reasons:

First, I was disturbed by multiple reports about Judge Kavanaugh’s legal career, as well as about his and his Republican supporters’ lack of candor. It’s not merely that we’re living through another #MeToo moment, amplified by flashbacks to Anita Hill. It’s also David Brock’s chilling description of collaborating with Kavanaugh in the 1990s as “part of a close circle of cynical hard-right operatives.” There’s the pattern of false and misleading statements about Kavanaugh’s role in the Bush White House. There’s Kavanaugh's implausible testimony that he doesn’t remember receiving the sexually explicit joke compilation emails that his other judicial mentor, disgraced Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski, sent to his former clerks. Finally, Kavanaugh is complicit in the GOP’s refusal to produce or consider thousands of relevant documents regarding his legal career. Under the circumstances, Republicans’ insistence on ramming his nomination through the Senate is unseemly.

Second, the fact that I didn’t know someone in law school, standing alone, is not much of a data point. Nevertheless, my lack of any personal encounters at law school with Brett Kavanaugh resonated with others' observations.

I’m not criticizing Judge Kavanaugh for his conservative bona fides, which are readily apparent from his record. And it’s not just my own progressive perspective. Like most educational institutions, Yale Law School skews left. (I went from being one of the most radical students at Brigham Young University to being dead center at Yale.) Nevertheless, despite its decidedly liberal overall bent, Yale Law is also extraordinarily diverse. Even with the excessive number of Yale College graduates who linger in New Haven.1

1Sorry, Kathleen and Jamie. 

The rest of my classmates hailed from all over the country and the world, bringing their varied backgrounds and interests to the melting pot. In addition to the occasional pesky law class, you could spend your time with student legal clinics, cutting-edge academic journals, and endless philosophical arguments. My closest friends at law school included evangelical Christians, unreconstructed libertarians, prep-school Republicans, and even bros.

So I was struck by the paltry list of signatures on our classmates’ letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Judge Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination. The twenty-three signatories include just three women, and no LGBT individuals that I'm aware of. No offense to Michelle, Mary, Stephanie, Mark, and my conservative friends who signed, but overall it’s a pretty bro-ish bunch.

Last week, another law school classmate questioning the Kavanaugh nomination on Facebook acknowledged she did “not have any particular recollection of him during that time.” Thena is so smart she abandoned the law after graduation and became a medical doctor. I don’t think she’ll take offense if I reveal she was not a Fox News blonde in law school.

As Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie recently observed, Judge Kavanaugh is “the perfect nominee for our era of elite impunity.” According to Bouie, our current “crisis of accountability” reflects 

a world where responsibility and culpability are structured by race, class, gender, and your overall proximity to disadvantage. In the existing framework, we cannot ask a prospective Supreme Court justice to account for the actions of his youth, but we can hold a 12-year-old black boy responsible for not heeding police commands fast enough, or a 17-year-old black teenager for not deferring to a neighborhood watchman.

Homespun Midwestern girls and queer-ish misfits from Utah are just some of the many people who will never be part of Brett Kavanaugh’s world.

For the last several years, the Supreme Court has been closely divided – between graduates of Harvard and Yale. Judge Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Court will tip the majority to Yale. 

As a YLS alumnus, I should be excited about entrenching our hegemony. But I’m already tired of explaining how legal extremist Justice Clarence Thomas does not represent the values I learned at Yale. Not even counting the eerily similar manner of his confirmation in the face of Anita Hill’s damning sexual harassment testimony.2

2Seat-stolen-from-Obama Neil Gorsuch is also a member of the Supreme Court’s permanent asterisk club, but at least Justice Gorsuch went to Harvard.

After stress-testing constitutional norms for decades, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is on the brink of his ultimate anti-democratic triumph. The Supreme Court will lurch far to the right. And I dread the prospect of spending the next thirty years telling my children I went to law school with Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Here are links to more of my “Doppeler Effect” essays, describing other individuals whose lives have paralleled and/or crossed particular threads of my own story: 

I am Rob Lowe” (9/20/17)

Chorus Minivan Dad” (3/6/18)


  1. I was disappointed, too, with the lack of diversity in the people signing onto the letter. At the time we signed on, of course, we did not know who else would sign or about these allegations. That knowledge would have certainly altered my thinking. What I did know when I signed on was that the letter fairly stated my views, and that we lost an election. Given that loss, I wasn't going to get a nominee who reflected my views. But-- this latest development matters. They need to stop the process and thoroughly investigate.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Roger.

    Thena Poteat

  3. You're welcome. (It took a long thesaurus session before I settled on "homespun Midwestern.")

  4. Enjoyed the column.

  5. Thanks for this -- an important addition. A quibble -- he's a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.