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.

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reason: How were your parents able to leave? Was it arduous to get out?

Kozinski: It was essentially impossible. Romania, unlike some other Eastern European countries, had no border with the West. So running the border was not a possibility. Unless the government allowed you to leave, you couldn’t do it, because you’d find yourself in another communist country.

They would allow some ethnic repatriation, and we were fortunate that they allowed Jews to leave. We learned later on that what was going on was, with the help of the American Jewish community, essentially Israel was buying Jews from the Romanian authorities. And it was not automatic. My father, having been a communist and having been a true believer, and having fought and bled for communism, he was sent to a concentration camp—the worst of the concentration camps—both for being a Jew and, the worst of the worst, he was a communist Jew. And he lived and fought and believed in it, and he had the misfortune of living to see his dream come true and see it crumble before his eyes.

I think he came to realize—I know he came to realize—that this kind of system, good as it may sound on paper or good as it may sound on first hearing about it, was a prescription for oppression. It was a prescription to give people power over other people that are not subject to lawful control or lawful checks, and that it inevitably leads to corruption; it inevitably leads to oppression. He came to realize that that’s the system that he helped put in place, and he decided to make all sacrifices to see his son—my mother was not an ardent communist but she of course was enjoying the benefits of being married to a high-ranking party member—but they both decided to give up what was a relatively good position in Romania and ask to leave.

And they got kicked out of their jobs. We were there for three and a half, four years, leading a hand-to-mouth existence. It was a big secret and I was not allowed to tell people at school, that we had asked to leave. Occasionally it would get found out and I would get harassed over it. But we made it through. Eventually our salvation came. But they had to give up everything that they had. We could leave with nothing in our pockets.

reason: Did you go pretty quickly from Vienna to California?

Kozinski: We spent a year in Vienna. I must say, again this is something that most of you here will never experience, but when the Jewish family service took up our case and asked us where we wanted to go, my father said, “I know this is probably hopeless, but if we could go to America that would be incredible.” So they said, “Well, we can try.” So we were there, and we never dreamed it would happen. It was just like being sent to the moon. Much to our surprise, after a few months of waiting the approval came through. Until we actually landed here, I couldn’t really believe it was happening.

reason: Did you speak a lick of English when you arrived?

Kozinski: Unfortunately I did. We had a trilingual household. My mother and I spoke German, my father and I spoke Romanian, and we all spoke Yiddish. In addition to that, I went to German school and I had tutors in English and piano and French. I learned English from a very fine, intelligent, well-educated woman, who unfortunately spoke English with a Romanian accent. So I think I might have been better off picking it up here. I still talk like her.

reason: When did you first get in touch with reason?

Kozinski: It was in 1970. I had heard something about libertarians and I thought it was “libertines” and my roommate disabused me of the notion. I said, “Well, it sounds interesting anyway.” I was at UCLA and they were having a rally at [the University of Southern California] so I made the trek all the way across town. I just wanted to see what these people had to say. I had been reading Ayn Rand; I think I’ve read every word she’s written at least once. I didn’t know there were people that had some of the same ideas I did. So I went to the rally, and it was sort of a ragtag rally. So there, standing near a card table was this smiling guy with what was then really dark hair in shirtsleeves with copies of reason. And I passed by and he engaged me in communication, in conversation. Well, you know [former reason editor] Manny Klausner, he hasn’t met a stranger. So we became instant friends. He says, “Here, take a magazine. Take a magazine, read it.” So I’ve been a friend of reason and a friend of Manny’s ever since. I’ve been educated in libertarian ideas and it’s been great.

reason: Do you describe yourself as a libertarian? Do you use labels or are labels not your friend when you want to be appointed as a judge?

Kozinski: You know, I was appointed by a Republican president. I was registered as a Republican at the time. I’m not even going to tell you what I am now. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure I remember. I generally describe myself as being libertarian in philosophy and not everybody fully understands what it means, but what I’ve found over the years is it winds up being a description that more and more people understand. I was afraid in the beginning that people would misunderstand what it means. I think more and more people have come to accept it. I used to describe it as someone who is a liberal at home but a conservative at work.

reason: The 9th Circuit, which you preside over, has a reputation as being super-flakey and the most liberal court in the country. Can you talk about that reputation?

Kozinski: There’s no doubt about it that for many years the 9th Circuit was at loggerheads with the Supreme Court, and to some extent still is. So the most contentious and difficult cutting-edge cases where there are sort of reasonable differences of opinion among judges, the 9th Circuit for many years was quite a bit more liberal than the Supreme Court. It’s a consequence of a number of factors, not the least of which [is that] President Carter appointed something like 10, 12, 13 judges who were some of the most liberal judges the world has ever seen to our court. And many of them, some of them—most of them!—are still there. Many of them are still quite active. Harry Pregerson, Steve Reinhardt: They decidedly view the world from a different perspective than does the Supreme Court.

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