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Opinion The creepiest sexual-harassment story we aren’t talking about

Federal appeals court judge Alex Kozinski. (J. David Ake/AP)

Of the deluge of sexual-harassment stories gushing forth in recent weeks, one of the most disturbing — one of the creepiest, really — has also been one of the least noted: the allegations involving federal appeals court judge Alex Kozinski.

There are, certainly, more egregious fact patterns. But of the powerful and prominent men who have been accused of preying on powerless women, Kozinski occupies an especially troubling role: There are few jobs whose occupants are more insulated from scrutiny than that of federal judge.

The insulation is appropriate; indeed, it is constitutionally mandated. Yet as we have seen in case after case, Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose to John Conyers Jr., it may be precisely that untrammeled power, the sense of invulnerability from consequences, that enables such abuse. When you’re a star — or a judge — they let you do it.

A week ago, The Post reported allegations that included Kozinski calling a clerk into his chambers to show her pornography and ask whether it aroused her; suggesting to a clerk for another 9th Circuit judge that she should work out naked; and making other court staffers uncomfortable with sexual innuendo or outright ogling. Friday evening, the allegations crossed the line into unwanted physical contact, with additional women coming forward, including four — a law student, a lawyer, a law professor and a former judge — who described Kozinski touching them without consent.

Bad enough, because Kozinski holds a lifetime appointment to the federal bench, where his duties include hearing appeals involving sexual harassment and sexual assault. Bad enough, because a judge and law clerk enjoy a relationship that is at once uniquely intimate and inherently unequal.

But it would be wrong to understand Kozinski as just one among 179 federal appeals court judges. He is among the most influential and celebrated, an icon among conservatives and — perhaps another explanation for why the reports about his behavior took so long to surface — a reliable "feeder judge" for those seeking Supreme Court clerkships.

Kozinski has always been known as a brilliant, transgressive provocateur. His willingness to push the boundaries not only of stodgy judicial writing ("The parties are advised to chill," he concluded one opinion) but also of stodgy judicial behavior was part of his charm, or so it seemed. In 1996, Kozinski wrote for Slate about going — at the invitation of a law clerk, gender unstated — to an outre "lingerie party" that included a "bondage peep show."

After the Los Angeles Times reported in 2008 that Kozinski maintained a publicly accessible website that included pornographic images, a judicial investigation reprimanded him for "poor judgment."

Kozinski dismissed the harassment allegations, telling the Times, "If this is all they are able to dredge up after 35 years, I am not too worried," and, in a statement Friday, cited his "unusual sense of humor."

It remains to be seen whether such insouciance is justified. Writing for Slate, Dahlia Lithwick recounted how, as a young clerk to a different 9th Circuit judge in 1996, she called Kozinski's chambers to firm up drink plans with one of his clerks. Kozinski himself answered the phone. Lithwick recalls: "The judge asked where I was. I said I was in my hotel room. Then he said, 'What are you wearing?' "

Southern Methodist University law professor Joanna Grossman tweeted that during her 9th Circuit clerkship, in 1994 and 1995, "Kozinski sent a memo to all the judges suggesting that a rule prohibiting female attorneys from wearing push-up bras would be more effective than the newly convened Gender Bias Task Force."

Nancy Rapoport, who clerked for a different 9th Circuit judge in 1985 and 1986, described how Kozinski invited her to drinks and asked, “What do single girls in San Francisco do for sex?”

And, most heartbreaking, former clerk Heidi Bond, one of the women who went on the record with The Post, elaborated on Kozinski in an online essay. She described how Kozinksi, during her clerkship in 2006-2007, referred to her as his "slave" and asserted his complete "control" of her behavior.

How, after an abusive outburst, he would ask, “Heidi, honey. . . . Do you still love me?” and kiss her cheek, expecting a kiss in return. How he showed her a “knock chart . . . listing all the girls that he and his friends had banged while they were in college.” How she “felt like a prey animal.”

How the trauma of working for Kozinski almost dissuaded her from moving on to clerk for Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy. How she “could not escape the notion that my career success was built entirely on my silence.”

Even before the latest story broke, one or more Kozinski clerks took the extraordinary step of resigning, and 9th Circuit Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas ordered a judicial misconduct review. Let the process proceed — but if the behavior is anything like what has been alleged, this man has no business sitting in judgment of others.

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