A few years ago, as she was prepping to interview for a judicial clerkship, a student at Yale Law School received a troubling combination of warning and advice from her professors about one federal judge in particular: Brett Kavanaugh, she was told, liked his female clerks to have a “certain look.”
Right now Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court hangs in the balance as he faces an accusation that he sexually assaulted a girl in high school.
The professors proffering the advice are themselves well-known. Both Jed Rubenfeld and his wife, Amy Chua, author of the controversial 2011 book The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, told this woman about Kavanaugh’s preferences. Then, Kavanaugh was simply known as a prestigious judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Though neither said the judge did anything untoward regarding the women he worked with, the student found their counsel off-putting.
“I had mixed feelings,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous due to privacy concerns. “On the one hand, it’s a yellow flag; on the other hand, phew, I hadn’t heard anything else.”
Her first inkling that there might be issues with Kavanaugh came from Rubenfeld in a conversation about various judges with whom she might work.
Rubenfeld took care to warn her about two judges in particular: First, Alex Kozinski, then a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, was known to sexually harass his clerks, he told her. (Kozinski retired in December amid accusations of harassment.)
The other was Kavanaugh. Though the judge was known to hire female clerks who had a “certain look,” Rubenfeld told her, he emphasized that he had heard nothing else untoward.
“He did not say what the ‘certain look’ was. I did not ask,” the woman said. “It was very clear to me that he was talking about physical appearance, because it was phrased as a warning ― and because it came after the warning about Judge Kozinski.”
On a separate occasion last year, Chua offered more detail, telling a group of students that it’s “not an accident” that Kavanaugh’s law clerks “look like models,” Chua said, according to an account published in The Guardian on Thursday. The comments echoed those told to a group of Yale students over drinks with Chua last year, three of whom spoke with HuffPost.
The woman who was warned a few years ago said that she had already heard rumors about Kozinski and had ruled out a clerkship with him.
While she saw the warning about Kozinski as a flashing red signal, the advice on Kavanaugh didn’t stop her from deciding to interview with him.
That’s when Rubenfeld’s wife stepped in. At Yale, Chua is less known as the “tiger mom” and more sought after for her ability to help students land prestigious clerkships with federal judges ― the sort that can ultimately land a student the ultimate prize, a spot clerking for a Supreme Court justice.
Indeed, Kavanaugh was once a clerk for Kozinski before nabbing a spot as Justice Anthony Kennedy’s clerk on the Supreme Court. (Kavanaugh has denied knowing about Kozinski’s reputation with women.)
To the female law student, Chua echoed Rubenfeld’s comments.
“She advised me to be and dress ‘outgoing,’” the former Yale student said. “She strongly urged me to send her pictures of what I was thinking of wearing so she could evaluate. I did not.”
At the time the student said she didn’t know if this sartorial advice was about her own look, Kavanaugh’s preferences or Chua’s ideas about what Kavanaugh liked. A friend suggested that the student needed the advice because she was “awkward,” according to a transcript of a Gchat conversation that the Yale student had at the time and that was viewed by HuffPost.
The woman said she was not sure if Chua was giving this advice to others. “She did, however, say that she offers members of her small group the ‘opportunity’ to send her photos so she can help them figure out what to wear for interviews.”
“For the more than ten years I’ve known him, Judge Kavanaugh’s first and only litmus test in hiring has been excellence,” Chua told HuffPost in a response to a request for comment from both professors. The statement was sent from a hospital where Chua has been confined with an undisclosed serious illness.
The statement didn’t deny the student’s account, but it’s glowing in its praise of Kavanaugh, echoing a piece Chua recently wrote for The Wall Street Journal, “Kavanaugh Is a Mentor to Women,” in which she boasts of placing 10 clerks with Judge Kavanaugh, “eight of them women.” Their daughter just accepted a clerkship with Kavanaugh, the statement said.
“As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal, he has also been an exceptional mentor to his female clerks,” she said in the statement. “Among my proudest moments as a parent was the day I learned our daughter would join those ranks.”
The statement added that Kavanaugh’s clerks have been a “diverse” group.
Travis Lenkner, who clerked for Kavanaugh in 2007 and 2008, said the idea that Kavanaugh had a certain look in mind for female clerks is absurd.
“There’s only one ‘look’ that is a requirement in Judge Kavanaugh’s chambers for men and women,” he said. “And that is that a suit is required every day. It’s a formal chambers in a formal courthouse.”
“Otherwise, the racial, ethnic and ideological diversity of his clerks is unmatched in the entire federal judiciary, including the diversity of his Yale clerks recommended by professor Chua,” Lenkner said.
Giving law students advice on what to wear to an interview isn’t terribly odd, but the particular warning about Kavanaugh is unusual, said Vivia Chen, a senior columnist at The American Lawyer magazine who writes about gender and the legal profession. Typically the advice would be more general, like wear a nice suit, she said.
“It sounds sexist,” Chen said. “If you’re going into that kind of detail, it sounds like the judge has a fetish, frankly, and that the law professors are feeding the fetish.”
Chen, who knows Chua, suspects the professor was just trying to help her student.
“I could see her being gossipy and free with her advice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Chen said. “In some ways, you want a professor who’s helping with your career to help you.”
In the end, the law student interviewed with Kavanaugh and said nothing unusual happened, but she wound up clerking for another judge.
Ashley Feinberg and Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting. This post has been updated to include a report from The Guardian and a similar account told to HuffPost.