Yale Law School’s Reckoning Over Brett Kavanaugh

Students and faculty staged a sit-in Monday in protest against President Trump’s nomination of the conservative appellate-court judge, a 1990 Yale Law graduate, to the Supreme Court.

A sit-in at Yale Law School in protest against the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, a 1990 graduate of the school (Jacob Stern)

NEW HAVEN, Conn.—On most Monday mornings, the main corridor at Yale Law School bustles with students. Thirty years ago, a young Brett Kavanaugh was one of them.

On this Monday morning, as the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., wrestled with new allegations against Kavanaugh, everything here was still.

More than 300 demonstrators dressed in black gathered at around 9:30 a.m. for a silent sit-in to protest Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court and to support the two women who have accused him of sexual misconduct: Christine Blasey Ford, who knew Kavanaugh in high school, and Deborah Ramirez, a Yale classmate whose allegations first appeared in The New Yorker on Sunday night. Some professors canceled classes on Monday to allow students to attend the demonstration or to travel to Washington, to protest outside the Supreme Court.

The assault allegations against Kavanaugh have sent shock waves through the law school, where a number of prominent professors initially supported his nomination. Ford, 51, a research psychologist, claims Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her and tried to remove her clothing when he was 17 and she was 15. Ramirez, 53, who studied sociology and psychology, alleges that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her and thrust his genitals in her face when both had been drinking heavily at a dorm party in Lawrence Hall when they were freshmen. Kavanaugh has categorically denied both allegations.

In July, a law-school press release praising Kavanaugh, a 1990 Yale Law graduate, as an expert legal mind and an “incomparable mentor” drew criticism from liberal students and faculty members, many of whom signed a petition that called the judge “a threat to the most vulnerable.” Over the past week, that criticism has intensified at the nation’s top-ranked law school.

On Thursday, The Guardian reported that two prominent law-school faculty members, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, had advised female students interviewing for clerkships with Kavanaugh to dress attractively. (Chua denied those allegations in a letter to the law-school community.) Then, over the weekend, a majority of law-school faculty members—including two former deans, Robert Post and Harold Koh—signed an open letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee calling for a full investigation into the accusations against Kavanaugh.

By that point, a group of about 50 law-school students had already begun organizing the sit-in. What began as a discussion about politics in Washington became a reckoning with a culture in New Haven that has divided students and faculty members. “Some people are scared, some people are angry,” said Nick Kilstein, a first-year law student.

“This is going to be a very tense week at the law school,” said John Langford, a faculty member who participated in the sit-in. “It’s certainly one of the more politically fraught moments, which I think reflects things that are internal to the law school, as well as broader political dynamics right now.”

In a courtyard just off the main hallway, students have hung signs criticizing the law school’s institutional culture, as rumors swirl about how much a deputy law-school dean knew about allegations of sexual harassment against the appellate-court judge Alex Kozinski, who resigned last year after multiple allegations by former female staffers and clerks and for whom Kavanaugh clerked in the early 1990s. Sex Sells @ YLS, one sign reads. Is there nothing more important to YLS than its proximity to power and prestige? another asks.

David Yaffe-Bellany

Even among faculty members who initially backed him, Kavanaugh appears to be gradually losing support. The original press release circulated in July included a quote from Abbe Gluck, an expert in health law, describing Kavanaugh as fair-minded, humble, and collegial. The quote has since been removed from the press release, and Gluck signed the open letter calling for a full investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh. She did not respond to requests for comment.

The constitutional-law expert Akhil Reed Amar has not retracted his praise for Kavanaugh, who he said in the press release “commands wide and deep respect among scholars, lawyers, judges, and justices.” This summer, Amar also published an op-ed in The New York Times titled “A Liberal’s Case for Brett Kavanaugh,” in which he called the nomination “President Trump’s finest hour, his classiest move.”

But in a Yale Daily News op-ed published on Monday and titled “Second Thoughts on Kavanaugh,” Amar expressed just that, calling for an investigation into the allegations of sexual misconduct, even as he stood by his support of Kavanaugh’s judicial and scholarly records.

Some students are unwilling to accept such rationalizations.

“Over the past few months, I’ve seen the name of my school associated with this awful human being and been disgusted by it,” said Matt Post, a freshman at Yale College. “I’ve seen faculty defend his character, even if they disagreed with his ideas. I think those two concepts are inseparable, and we’re seeing that today. You can’t devalue a woman’s right to choose and respect women.”

On Tuesday, law-school students and faculty members are scheduled to gather for a town hall to discuss the allegations against Kavanaugh and the broader institutional concerns that have surfaced over the past week. Many students have called for Heather Gerken, the law-school dean, to take a stronger public stance on Kavanaugh’s nomination and the institutional debate it has generated. One of the signs hanging in the courtyard put that concern bluntly: #WheresGerken?

Gerken said in a statement on Monday that “as dean, I cannot take a position on the nomination.”

“But I am so proud of the work our community is doing to engage with these issues,” she wrote. “And I stand with them in supporting the importance of fair process, the rule of law, and the integrity of the legal system.”

Gerken, who was a senior legal adviser on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, became the law school’s first female dean in 2017.

“One of the most difficult things about being at the helm of the law school is it’s not a monolithic institution,” Langford said. “It’s an incredibly difficult situation for Heather to navigate.”

George Priest, a law professor who taught Kavanaugh when he attended Yale Law, said he did not sign the open letter to the Judiciary Committee because he believes it’s inappropriate for faculty members to get involved in “political disputes.”

“I’ve never seen any untoward behavior by Kavanaugh, and I played a lot of basketball with Kavanaugh,” Priest said. “So I know him pretty well.”

Nick Kilstein, the first-year law student, has not played a lot of basketball with Kavanaugh. Kilstein earned his bachelor’s degree at American University, after watching his two older siblings drop out of public high school in his hometown of Pennington, New Jersey. For the past nine years, he has taught history and coached professional martial arts.

“I think there’s a lot of wondering, especially for people like me, who don’t come from a background filled with people from elite law schools,” he said. “Where does this fit into the larger story of the law school?”