From Communist Romania to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Judge Alex Kozinski talks about free speech, cell phones, and how bubble gum made him a capitalist.

“Those of you who’ve had the good fortune to be born in the United States simply have not known the absence of freedoms,” says Judge Alex Kozinski, Chief Justice of the U.S Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. “You can only imagine, but not experience, what it’s like to live in a society where these freedoms are absent.”

Born in 1950 to Holocaust survivors, Kozinski grew up as a committed communist in Bucharest, Romania. On his first trip outside of the Iron Curtain, in Vienna, Austria, he experienced forbidden luxuries like bubble gum and bananas. It was his first taste of freedom, and it caused him to become, in his words, “an instant capitalist.”

Today, Kozinski is responsible for some of the most influential, controversial and often hilarious legal decisions in the United States. The self-described libertarian challenged the early Obama administration over the issue of same-sex marriage, weighed in on whether a Barbie doll qualifies as a sex object, and, in one of the most influential dissents in recent memory, caused federal prosecutors to drop all charges against a defendant who’d been convicted of smuggling illegal immigrants across the U.S.-Mexico border.

In February, the blunt-spoken Kozinski sat down with Editor in Chief Matt Welch during Reason Weekend in Las Vegas for a wide-ranging discussion about freedom and the law, how new technologies affect our right to privacy, and why libertarians should be wary of embracing jury nullification.

For video of this interview, go to reason.com or use your smartphone to scan the QR code at left.

reason: You were born in Romania in 1950. To the extent that you remember your life before you were 12, can you share an aspect of what you thought was a normal childhood that in retrospect looks a little different?

Alex Kozinski: I grew up in communism and I considered myself a communist. My parents were careful not to teach me any wrong ideas, because it was well known that parents could get into trouble if children said the wrong thing. In fact, one time I did say something that sounded somewhat critical of the government, and my father almost lost his job over it. And they were finally persuaded that I was just a kid talking. But my father got a talking-to.

reason: Do you remember what you said?

Kozinski: There was a newspaper called Free Romania, and I was 7 years old. It was just people in my father’s office and they said “Do you know how to read?” And I said, “Oh, yes.” And they said, “Can you read here?” And I said, “Well, why is it called Free Romania? All those people are in prison.” 

That didn’t go over well, and after that my father said, “Well, if you ever are in public and I’m there and I give you this signal [sniffs], you stop. You don’t say another word. You don’t explain. You just stop talking. And I said, “Well, what if they ask me questions?” He said, “Don’t worry, they’re not going to ask you questions.” And they never did. My father gave me the signal, I stopped talking, and I never got in trouble again.

But to me that was normal. The idea that you didn’t say certain things that you had in your head, that’s just the way life was. That food and consumer goods were there whenever the government could provide them. And if you happened to find something, you bought it because you never knew when something would be a necessity. To me, that was a normal way of life.

We were indoctrinated in school that everything that we have that’s good, we have to be grateful to the Communist Party. And I believed it in my heart that it was true. When we were leaving, you know, we’re going to be behind the Iron Curtain where people are oppressed by the voracious, greedy capitalists, and I knew that I would take this knowledge with me—this enlightenment with me—and I would teach the oppressed of the capitalist world of how bad off they were.

I was firmly of a mind to do that. I remember being on the train to Vienna and having these thoughts—and that’s the last time I remember having them. Then I got to Vienna and I discovered bubble gum and chocolate and bananas and things like that. And I became an instant capitalist. It was sort of like, “Whoa!”

And I think it stuck with me for my entire life. Having not only lived in an oppressive regime, but having been deluded by the government when I was a little kid, I accepted what I was taught. [The experience] taught me to be skeptical, and it taught me not to trust what others say, particularly if you are from the government. “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you”—I learned that that was always a big lie.

I’m intensely jealous of the freedoms we have and the freedoms we enjoy in this country. And I must say, all of you who had the good fortune to be born in the United States simply have not known the absence of those freedoms. You can only imagine but not really experience what it’s like to live in a society where those freedoms were absent. I think, perhaps, my understanding of what it is to lose these freedoms and how important it is to hold onto them is a little more intense than it would be had I been born in this country.

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