Filing into the main hallway of the Sterling Law Building, hundreds of Yale Law students dressed in black sat crisscrossed on the floor. For 30 minutes, no sounds were heard, aside from the occasional whisper and shuffling of feet.
Some students stared straight ahead with blank expressions on their faces. Others shifted their gazes to a handout on their laps outlining the schedule of the day’s events. One woman carried a bright pillow in the shape of red lips to an open spot on the floor. Dropping the pillow onto the ground and sitting on it, she muttered, “Kiss my ass, Yale.”
Three hours later and 300 miles away, two male students clad in navy Yale hoodies stood in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C, chanting, “Kavanaugh is disgusting, that’s why we’re disrupting” and, “We believe Christine Ford, we believe Anita Hill.” They were arrested and detained for over 3 1/2 hours by Capitol Police, alongside dozens of other activists, for blocking access through a public building as they protested the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90. Hours later, the two Yale Law students boarded a bus back to New Haven with over 100 of their Law School classmates, who had also traveled to D.C. to protest Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
Recent allegations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh have wracked the Yale Law School community and the nation at large in the wake of an already monthslong national debate over Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Accusations of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh brought forth by Christine Blasey Ford, Yale alumna Deborah Ramirez ’87 and Julie Swetnick have struck a chord with many law students, who say the allegations against Kavanaugh are connected to a broader culture of enabling sexual disrespect at the Law School.
“This is a moment in history and a time of reckoning for an institution that I love deeply,” said Briana Clark LAW ’20. “A lot of people are in pain.”
In July, Yale Law students began voicing both opposition and support for Kavanaugh, after President Donald Trump nominated him to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy. On July 9, the Law School published a press release announcing Kavanaugh’s nomination on its website.
“Judge Kavanaugh has been a longtime friend to many of us in the Yale Law School community,” Law School Dean Heather Gerken wrote in the press release. “Ever since I joined the faculty, I have admired him for serving as a teacher and mentor to our students and for hiring a diverse set of clerks, in all respects, during his time on the court.”
The Law School’s press release included remarks from Gerken and four Yale Law professors — Akhil Amar ’80 LAW ’84, William Eskridge, Jr. LAW ’78, Abbe Gluck ’96 LAW ’00 and Kate Stith — lauding Kavanaugh for his judicial expertise and mentorship. While the statement ended with a disclaimer stating that Yale Law School is a nonpartisan institution that “neither endorses nor opposes candidates for office,” the press release drew swift criticism from students and alumni who viewed it as an unequivocal endorsement of Kavanaugh.
The following week, over 800 students, faculty members and alumni signed an open letter condemning Gerken and the Yale Law administration for praising Kavanaugh’s professionalism and reputation in the press release, while ignoring the “true stakes of his nomination.” Signatories criticized, among a multitude of concerns, Kavanaugh’s record on reproductive rights, undocumented immigrants and what they say is the threat he poses to marginalized Americans.
“Is there nothing more important to Yale Law School than its proximity to power and prestige?” the open letter reads. “Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination presents an emergency — for democratic life, for our safety and freedom, for the future of our country. His nomination is not an interesting intellectual exercise to be debated amongst classmates and scholars in seminar.”
In interviews with the News, some signatories of the letter said the press release was political by nature, considering the partisan dispute that was unfolding over Kavanaugh’s confirmation. If approved by the Senate, Kavanaugh’s appointment would create a reliable conservative majority on the Court.
“When nominations like this take place, the knee-jerk response of an institution like our law school or like Yale University in general does not need to be simply to cheerlead proximity to power, especially when the consequences could be so disastrous,” said Zareena Grewal, an American studies, religious studies and ethnicity, race and migration professor who signed the open letter. “This is a profoundly political choice.”
Many signatories compared the press release to the Law School’s announcement of Justice Samuel Alito’s LAW ’75 nomination in 2005, which included just one statement from then-Law School Dean Harold Koh. Unlike other announcements about Supreme Court nominees, Gerken and other prominent professors “went out of their way” to praise Kavanaugh, according to Wally Hilke LAW ’18. Alyssa Peterson LAW ’19, who helped draft the letter, called the professors’ remarks in the press release “grotesque fawning” over Kavanaugh.
Still, another group of Law School students, alumni and faculty members stood behind Kavanaugh in their own open letter published that same week in July. The authors applauded the professors quoted in the Law School’s press release, calling their comments a “breath of fresh air” in an increasingly polarized political climate.
“Judge Kavanaugh is eminently qualified to serve as a Supreme Court justice,” the letter reads. “He has reached legal conclusions free of political partisanship.”
Suranjan Sen LAW ’19 said he signed the pro-Kavanaugh letter not “out of zeal” but only after reading the first open letter, which he thought unfairly criticized some of Kavanaugh’s past rulings based on their results, rather than their process.
“The spirit of that letter seemed more partisan and more focused on results,” Sen said. “It’s not the role of a judge to do what they want if they disagree with the law. I viewed my signing the letter not as pro-Kavanaugh but anti-anti-Kavanaugh.”
Another law student, Habib Olapade LAW ’20, wrote the News in an email that he added his name to the open letter in August because he viewed Kavanaugh as a “gifted jurist” who helped increase representation of women in D.C. appellate courts.
Joshua Wilson LAW ’19 said he appreciated his classmates efforts’ to encourage “vigorous discourse,” but that he could understand why some faculty members have not openly denounced Kavanaugh.
“People like Akhil Amar, like Bill Eskridge, are liberals. They agreed to the nomination with enthusiasm because they recognized Judge Kavanaugh was well qualified,” Wilson said. “I don’t think you can fault the Law School for supporting its graduates as they reach the highest echelon of the profession.”
In an email to the News, Eskridge wrote that he does not endorse nor oppose judicial nominees, and that his statement about Kavanaugh reflected his “evaluation of his quality of mind, which is quite high.”
However, some law students who had previously supported Kavanaugh’s nomination said that they now have reservations about his appointment in the wake of three recent allegations of sexual misconduct against the nominee.
In an email to the News, Ruel Jerry LAW ’20 wrote that he wouldn’t have signed the pro-Kavanaugh letter “with the information that we have now in September” and declined to comment further, citing unpleasant reactions to his signing of the letter. Wilson, as well as three other Yale Law students who requested anonymity to share their views on Kavanaugh without criticism from their classmates, said they asked to have their names removed from the pro-Kavanaugh letter after learning about the sexual misconduct allegations.
The White House quoted the Law School’s press release in its own statement on July 12, titled “The Legal Community is Giving Rave Reviews to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Nomination to the Supreme Court.” Critics of Yale’s response said the White House’s use of multiple Yale Law professor’s quotes in its own press release only reaffirms the political nature of the law school’s nonpartisan statement.
“I think the onus is on … faculty and administrators to recognize the role and the power that their name have when making any statements,” Clark said.
Over the summer, several Yale law professors published op-eds in national newspapers with varying opinions on Kavanaugh’s nomination. In an op-ed in The New York Times, Amar wrote that Kavanaugh was the best choice for liberals and his nomination was “Trump’s finest hour, his classiest move.” Praising his former student, Amar said Kavanaugh’s judicial credentials rivaled only those of the current justices and President Barack Obama’s nominee Judge Merrick Garland. Amar later testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings. And in The Wall Street Journal, law professor Amy Chua lauded Kavanaugh as a champion mentor for women — her own daughter accepted a clerkship with the judge this year.
Still, not all faculty opinions supported the judge’s nomination; in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, law professors David Singh Grewal LAW ’02, Amy Kapczynski LAW ’03 and Issa Kohler-Hausmann LAW ’08 argued that there is no liberal case for Kavanaugh, whose work would “almost surely work to undermine decades of settled judicial precedent.”
Kavanaugh’s confirmation seemed all but guaranteed until Sept. 16, when a Washington Post report described a sexual assault allegedly perpetrated by Kavanaugh in the early 1980s, when he was 17. Blasey Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University, alleged that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when she was 15 years old at a house party in Maryland, where they both grew up.
As Senate Democrats called for a delay of Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote and Ford’s allegations dominated the news cycle, Yale Law students reckoned with even more allegations, this time regarding faculty members at their own institution. Last Thursday — the day Kavanaugh’s confirmation vote was originally scheduled to be held — over 100 Yale Law students gathered for an event hosted by Yale Law Women to discuss the sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh. While the event originally sought to place the allegations in a broader historical context, the conversation’s focus quickly shifted to allegations that certain law professors had known about former federal circuit judge Alex Kozinski’s sexually abusive behavior toward his clerks. Kozinski had resigned in December 2017 in response to a growing number of sexual misconduct allegations against him.
Students also discussed allegations reported earlier that day that Chua and her husband, Yale Law professor Jed Rubenfeld, had advised female students to appear “model-like” to win clerkships with Kavanaugh, according to Leanne Gale LAW ’20, who attended the event and is co-editor-in-chief of the Yale Journal of Law & Feminism. Rubenfeld and Chua — who canceled her classes at the beginning of the semester after being hospitalized with a serious, undisclosed illness — emphatically denied the allegations in a statement sent by Rubenfeld to the Yale Law community. Chua said her “record as a clerkship mentor, especially for women and minorities, is among the things [she’s] most proud of in [her] life.”
In a statement to Yale Law community members on Thursday, Gerken said she could not comment on individual complaints or investigations, but the allegations of faculty misconduct reported in the press were of “enormous concern” to her and to the Law School. Gerken emphasized that the Law School and the University thoroughly investigate all reported violations of University rules and “take no options off the table.”
“The Law School has a responsibility to provide a safe environment in which all of our students can live and learn in a community of mutual respect, free of harassment of any kind,” Gerken said in the statement. “I take this responsibility extraordinarily seriously.”
At the event on Thursday, Yale Law Deputy Dean Douglas Kysar also remarked that he had known of Kozinski’s reputation since he was a law student over 20 years ago, which angered many students, according to Charlotte Schwartz LAW ’19 and Mary Ella Simmons LAW ’20.
Schwartz said that many professors seemed defensive in response to student complaints, and that they did not understand why students were upset about the allegations that professors knew of Kozinski’s reputation and still recommended students to clerk for him. Simmons added that Kysar was the most explicit in his accounts related to Kozinski, and as a result, seemed to have “borne a lot of the brunt of the frustration.”
“If you’re going to get up there and defend people who are already in these huge positions of power, how can we ever trust you, why would we ever come to you and tell you stuff like this that happens?” Schwartz said. “Of course we won’t, of course we feel uncomfortable. This is part of the whole reason why Dr. Ford very rightly felt like she couldn’t come forward.”
Kysar sent an email to Yale Law students the following day, explaining that as a Harvard Law student, he had heard about Kozinski’s request for an “evening of billiards and cigars with ‘no girls’” and had thought the judge “sounded like an asshole.”
“I did not know, until news broke last year, of his reputation for sexual harassment and how much more deeply harmful and offensive his behavior actually was. Nor did I make a report of what I had heard during my student years to any relevant official body,” Kysar wrote in the email. “Given what I did know, do I wish I had done more? Yes. I always wish I had done more.”
Dianne Lake LAW ’20 said students came out of Thursday’s event feeling “disillusioned and discouraged,” and began organizing together to respond to what they’d heard. According to Gale, leaders of student affinity groups and other concerned students formed a coalition, called Yale Law Students Demanding Better, to voice their concerns about Kavanaugh and Yale Law’s internal culture. The group was responsible for planning Monday’s sit-in.
Students put up signs in the Sterling Law Building courtyard with messages like “#WheresGerken,” “YLS, you knew about Kozinski” and “Do More Now!” in response to Kysar’s remarks on Thursday. Amid growing frustration among students, 50 Yale Law faculty members signed an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday, urging the Senate to “conduct a fair and deliberate confirmation process.”
Gerken’s name was not listed on the letter. She issued her own statement that same day to state that she had not and cannot take a position on a nominee, but called the letter “a thoughtful statement.”
Law professor Lea Brilmayer, who signed the letter, said the letter was written by a few faculty members and circulated via email.
“It’s extremely moderately and mildly written. It’s so basic it shouldn’t cause any controversy,” Brilmayer said. “It was deliberately written as a consensus agreement and it’s so obviously correct.”
Still, Lake and other students involved with Yale Law Students Demanding Better said the letter did not garner a “unanimous response” from the faculty, and that more professors ought to sign it. Lake said their silence “says a lot … and the way they use their power is very indicative of the values they hold and the way in which they support or don’t support the welfare of their students.”
Gluck, one of the five faculty members quoted in the Law School’s first press release, also signed the faculty letter to the Senate. Last week, Gluck’s name and comments were removed online from the Law School’s press release, in which she had called Kavanaugh a “true intellectual” and a “fair-minded jurist who believes in the rule of law.”
“The quote has been removed because it has been consistently misread by the press and both sides and unfairly misappropriated by the White House,” Gluck told HuffPost.
Most law professors agreed to cancel or reschedule their Monday classes to allow students to participate in protests. Of 49 scheduled classes, approximately 31 were rescheduled, according to Jan Conroy, director of communications and public affairs at the Law School. Law professor Steven Duke LAW ’61, who signed the faculty letter, said Senate Republicans ought to conduct a thorough investigation of claims against Kavanaugh, but he called the decision to cancel classes to facilitate student protests a “political act which seems academically improper to me.”
On Sunday, three days after Yale Law Students Demanding Better coalesced, over 100 Yale Law students travelled to D.C. to protest Kavanaugh’s confirmation process. The students then held a press conference with Sen. Chris Coons DIV ’92 LAW ’92, D-Del., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, D-Conn. Meanwhile, over 300 students, faculty members and undergraduates rallied at the Sterling Law Building at Yale for their own sit-in.
Two first-year law students, Jesse Tripathi LAW ’21 and Jacob Schriner-Briggs LAW ’21, were arrested and detained for about 3 1/2 hours on Monday by Capitol Police for protesting in the Russell Senate Office Building in D.C. The students told the News that they protested in the rotunda of the building with the goal of getting arrested, to call attention to survivors of sexual assault and their classmates organizing in New Haven.
News of a second allegation of sexual misconduct against Kavanaugh — which allegedly took place at Yale College — loomed over the protests on Monday, and the sit-in was punctuated by personal anecdotes from students and faculty members about their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Midafternoon, students gathered in the Yale Law School courtyard to vocalize their demands to administrators and to call senators.
Less than a block away, Amar — the professor who had testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of Kavanaugh — sent an op-ed to be published in the News. In the op-ed, titled “Second thoughts on Kavanaugh,” Amar stood by his initial praise of Kavanaugh’s judicial qualifications but said both Kavanaugh and his accusers deserve to be heard as “speedily as possible.”
Still, many law students have pointed to Gerken and other individual faculty members’ silence on Kavanaugh as a sign that the Law School still values its own reputation over the concerns of its students.
“I think that Yale Law School’s administration got to choose between advancing the prestige of the school and standing up for gender justice and equality, and I think they chose advancing the prestige of the school,” Hilke said.
Schwartz added that many students are frustrated that Gerken released a press statement with positive remarks about Kavanaugh’s judicial record and mentorship, but still claims she is unable to call for a fair investigation into Kavanaugh’s sexual misconduct allegations because that would constitute a political stance.
“Saying someone who has a history of sexual assault should not be sent to the Supreme Court is not a partisan political position,” Peterson said. “They have a moral imperative to come out and say something, and I’m glad some of the faculty have at least done so.”
Other law students defended the Law School’s nonpartisan position on the allegations. Sen, one of the students who had signed the pro-Kavanaugh letter in July, said that it is “too early to believe” either Kavanaugh or his accusers without a fair investigation. Some students seem to be using Kavanaugh as a “stand-in for all men who have abused women,” Sen added.
Since the interview, a third woman, Julie Swetnick, has accused Kavanaugh of engaging in sexual misconduct at high school parties where women were drugged and encouraged to drink excessively. Swetnick added that she saw Kavanaugh lined up with other men outside rooms, where women were allegedly “gang raped,” according to her sworn declaration. In a statement released by the White House on behalf of Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court nominee continued to deny all allegations against him, calling Swetnick’s allegation “ridiculous and from the Twilight Zone.”
A second-year law student, who requested anonymity to speak freely, said Blasey Ford deserves to be fairly heard, but not automatically believed.
“But this opinion would be anathema in the law school right now, where it is seen as sexist to not ‘believe Blasey,’” the student said. “YLS has now ditched innocent until proven guilty, depending on who is accused. This is frightening. It’s frightening that the law school looks and feels more and more like revolutionary France [or] Russia.”
On Thursday, Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a highly anticipated hearing regarding Ford’s allegation of sexual assault against the nominee. Kavanaugh reaffirmed his denial of the accusations, swearing under oath that he is “innocent of this charge.” Ford also stood by her allegation, stating that she was “100 percent” certain Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on Kavanaugh’s confirmation on Friday morning.
Amar, who kept quiet about the allegations against Kavanaugh until Monday, said he has been frustrated that people have unequivocally denounced Kavanaugh for alleged sexual misconduct when he was a teenager and that many Yale Law students have jumped to conclusions without the results of an investigation into the accusations. In an interview before Thursday’s hearing, Amar said he had not yet decided whether the accusations should disqualify Kavanaugh from being confirmed.
Amar added that the role of Yale Law School is not to take political positions.
“I’d love to hear the specifics about where we’ve fallen down. If the claim is we are not, as a faculty, manning the barricades for social justice, that’s not what a university does,” Amar said. “That’s what the NAACP does, that’s what Planned Parenthood does. The University is about, to borrow the phrase “light and truth,” the University is about scholarship and the advancement of human knowledge and the dissemination of knowledge.”
Precipitated by dissatisfaction with Kavanaugh’s confirmation process and what they see as Yale Law School’s inadequate response, many Yale Law students are demanding more transparency from administrators and faculty.
According to Peterson, many students are “furious” because they believe the school has known about Kozinski’s abuses and about what they call Rubenfeld and Chua’s inappropriate behavior. Peterson added that Yale Law has “allowed and empowered” professors like Rubenfeld and Chua to discriminate against students at the Law School, she said. Only now are the Law School’s internal problems “getting shown nationally” as Kavanaugh’s nomination has placed a spotlight on the frustrations building up inside Sterling Law Building.
Hilke agreed, adding that there are “open secrets in the Law School about judges who demean women.” He said the Law School has kept quiet about Kavanaugh’s alleged misconduct because they have something “personally at stake” — proximity to a powerful potential Supreme Court Justice.
Yale Law professor George Priest ’69 said he recommended many Yale Law students to clerk for Kozinski, including Kavanaugh, and called himself a “feeder” to the judge. Priest said he had no knowledge of Kozinski’s sexual misconduct until allegations became public last year.
“None of my students ever reported to me that they’d been sexually harassed in the slightest,” Priest said. “I was actually shocked to hear about it.”
Brilmayer, who said she is one of the longest-serving women on the Yale Law faculty, called the students’ complaints “fully warranted” and said she could understand why female students feel like they’re being treated inappropriately. Still, she said these issues are not unique to Yale and there is more consciousness now within the Law School regarding how women are treated.
“The Law School has to do a lot to pull itself up by its bootstraps to improve on its record, and I think Heather Gerken wants to improve things this way, but [that means] constantly putting out firefights,” Brilmayer said.
While Yale Law students’ opinions vary on the credibility of the allegations against Chua, Rubenfeld and other faculty members, most interviewed for this story agreed that the clerkship hiring process at Yale Law needs to be improved.
According to Lake, the mystery and lack of transparency around the clerkship application process makes these allegations of faculty misconduct more plausible and makes the process “skewed in favor of the people who have the most proximity to power.”
Brilmayer echoed Lake’s sentiment, adding that she has heard various complaints over the years about how clerkships are handled. She described students who do “all sorts of cartwheels and somersaults” to get the attention of faculty members who tout their connections to powerful judges.
According to Clark, the asymmetry of power between faculty members and students regarding clerkship recommendations disadvantages women and students of color. Students are afraid to cross faculty members with strong ties to judges, Peterson added, because the hiring process is so dependent on faculty recommendations and connections.
But Simmons acknowledged that administrators and faculty members are not the only ones to blame for the unbalanced power dynamics when applying for clerkships. As Yale Law does not give out letter grades, Simmons said that some students seem to turn their attention to aggressively seeking out prestigious clerkships. The system is “so secretive and vulnerable to abuses of power” partly because of how highly students value clerkships, Simmons said.
Conroy, the communications director for Yale Law, said the school has a clerkship comment process used to survey judicial clerks about their past experiences, and that the information from the surveys is available to students and alumni applying for clerkships. She said the Law School is currently working with students to improve that process.
In May, Conroy said, the Law School responded to student concerns by surveying over 350 legal employers on their mandatory arbitration policies for employment-related disputes involving summer and incoming associates. Under an arbitration agreement, an employee resolves disputes with their employer out of court.
According to Hilke, these agreements are often used to silence people who have experienced sexual misconduct in the workplace, as they are unable to take their alleged perpetrator to court.
“The efforts by the Law School and its students supported a national dialogue on this employment practice, enabled law students to make more informed employment decisions, and convinced at least some law firms to rethink their practices in this area,” Conroy wrote in an email to the News. “Our goal with this effort was to gather the information sought by students and provide them with the power to decide which employment options to pursue and which to rule out.”
According to many students interviewed for this story, Kavanaugh’s nomination has raised larger questions at the Law School of what the institution stands for and how it can improve the experience of students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.
James Bhandary-Alexander, a lecturer at the Law School, said that many students feel a tension between Yale Law School’s role as an institution in placing their graduates in positions of power and the school’s commitment to values like equality and social justice.
“I think part of what Yale Law Students Demanding Better is doing is to make Yale Law School really articulate what it stands for and what it values,” Gale said. “One of the things Yale Law School prides itself on is its work for the public interest … if the Law School is really invested in the public interest, we need to start at home.”
Leaders of Yale Law Students Demanding Better said they have been encouraged by Gerken’s willingness to meet with them and hear their demands, but they want more accountability from faculty members to create a culture shift at the Law School.
“I think there’s a real crisis of trust and faith in our administration because we want to know that this institution that we put faith in is actually going to protect us from the risk of sexual assault,” Gale said. “And I think it’s up to the faculty to rebuild that trust.”
Alice Park | firstname.lastname@example.org .
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Joshua Wilson LAW ’19 asked to have his name removed from the pro-Kavanaugh open letter he signed in August after learning about sexual misconduct allegations against the judge.