As a jurist for the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Judge Alex Kozinski spends his days working on some of the most important legal rulings in the nation. But on several nights each year, he turns his primary courthouses in Pasadena and San Francisco into de facto movie theaters.
The lifelong cinema aficionado hosts an occasional screening series entitled Kozinski’s Favorite Films (KFF), which include pre-show dinners and post-show discussions with key figures behind their creation. That was the case on Aug. 9, when he presented legendary TV sitcom producer Norman Lear of “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” fame at a showing of the only feature film Lear ever directed, the 1971 anti-smoking satire “Cold Turkey.”
More than 200 attendees packed the mezzanine of the Richard H. Chambers U.S. Court of Appeals building to observe them live, while another 30 spilled over to watch on closed-circuit TVs in a downstairs courtroom. With fellow Ninth Circuit judges Morgan Christen and Consuelo Callahan and numerous other court staffers, area attorneys, state judges and even former jurors in the crowd, it’s clear that the series has become a word-of-mouth sensation in the legal community and beyond.
“I started the screenings about 25 years ago when I mentioned ‘12 Angry Men’ to my law clerks and they thought it was a fight movie like ‘The Seven Samurai,’” says Kozinski, referring to the classic jury drama starring Henry Fonda. “It was just 20 people in a conference room watching a VHS tape, but they enjoyed it enough that I kept showing them more law films.
“Eventually I added other types of films that I loved that had not been seen by many people or hadn’t been seen in a long time,” adds Kozinski, who splits much of his judicial schedule between the two cities. “For a long time, 50 people would be a big crowd, but about five years ago I started adding guest interviews and interest really perked up.”
The Lear evening was hectic but fun for Kozinski, who greeted the attendees, took part in a pre-dinner tour of the historic 1882 Spanish Colonial Revival-style courthouse, and personally dished out cheesesteaks during dinner before introducing the movie and hosting the post-show Q&A session.
Guests also enjoyed an assortment of beer, wine, sodas, pizzas and an extravagant salad created by Kozinski’s administrative assistant Donna Salter, who has worked with him since even before his appointment to the circuit by President Ronald Reagan in 1985.
The sporadic screenings alternate between Kozinski’s Pasadena home base and the circuit’s main courthouse in San Francisco and are announced via an email list, with attendees paying $10 if they choose to partake in the dinner.
A native of Romania, Kozinski fell in love with American movies in his homeland before immigrating with his family to Los Angeles when he was 12. While many of his events feature actors such as Michael York from “Cabaret” or Peter Fonda with “Easy Rider,” and directors including John Badham of “Saturday Night Fever,” some of his selections are offbeat.
“Hustler” magazine publisher Larry Flynt received standing ovations in both cities at screenings of the biopic “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” due to his status as a First Amendment advocate who successfully battled against obscenity charges.
Another memorable evening featured Stephen Glass at a screening of “Shattered Glass,” which depicted how the former journalist was forced out of the profession when his editors at “New Republic” magazine discovered that dozens of his stories were partially or completely fabricated.
“One of my law clerks knew that Glass was working as a paralegal in Los Angeles,” says Kozinski. “He had gone to law school after leaving journalism and tried to become a lawyer, but the state Bar rejected him. He agreed to come, and it added tremendously to the informational and emotional impact because he took full responsibility for the damage he caused and made no excuses for himself.
“I think the movie was very fair because it showed that he did a lot of harm but avoided piling on,” he continues. “And my audience gave him tough but fair questions.”
Kozinski invited Lear to discuss “Cold Turkey” because he has long admired the producer for bringing social relevance to sitcoms, as well as his longstanding support for the American Civil Liberties Union. Kozinski is generally regarded as a judicial conservative, although he also harbors strong libertarian leanings.
“It’s quite poignant to show this because I saw this in the theater, and I was lucky to be in America to catch the wave in which Norman Lear recreated TV sitcoms for several generations of Americans,” Kozinski said in his pre-screening remarks. “Protecting civil liberties is what we’re concerned with here in the courts. Films like Norman’s entertained the public while changing attitudes.”
The appearance came amid a wave of renewed attention for Lear, who was recently named one of this year’s five recipients of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors, the lifetime achievement tribute awarded for contributions to American culture.
Chosen on Aug. 2 alongside LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, Gloria Estefan and dancer-choreographer Carmen de Lavallade, Lear made headlines when he announced that he would not appear at a special pre-ceremony reception at the White House in December. The KFF evening’s most spirited response occurred when an audience member asked him about that decision.
“The Kennedy Center Honor is about the arts and humanities, which I think very highly of, but this president has turned his back on the arts and humanities,” said Lear, referring to deep cuts in funding for PBS and other arts organizations in President Donald Trump’s first budget.
“Would you go to the White House and meet a man who turned his back on something you cared about?” he added. “I don’t respect this particular president. As a citizen, he’s my president, and it’s my White House!”
Kozinski himself was caught in controversy in 2008, when the Los Angeles Times revealed that his personal website contained a folder of sexually explicit photos and videos with risqué humor that could potentially be accessed by the public. He claimed the images were a small portion of emails he had saved over many years, and that he was unaware they were visible to outsiders.
He volunteered to undergo an ethics investigation by a panel of federal judges from another circuit and ultimately resolved the issue after he was admonished, apologized and deleted the website.
While he encourages his attendees to engage in spirited questioning, Lear’s political stand was an exception to the norm.
“I’ve always made it a point to tell my guests to never ask rude questions, but hard questions are OK,” says Kozinski, whose favorite legal-themed film is the 1992 Joe Pesci comedy “My Cousin Vinny.” “There’s a big difference, and when my guests like Norman Lear or Stephen Glass come here, they expect some tough questions.
“I generally don’t like to have discussions veer into political matters because it’s a courthouse, but I didn’t think that was a political question,” he adds. “I prefer this to be a cultural and artistic event, and we have lots of places where people engage in political debate.”
Aside from being a positive community outreach, the screenings are a fun distraction amid an era in which the judicial branch of government faces scathing criticism from Trump.
The president used his Twitter feed to vent about a Ninth Circuit panel’s June decision to uphold a federal court ruling against his executive order limiting travel by citizens from six predominantly Muslim nations.
“I assume that no president likes courts to say what he’s doing is invalid and illegal, and I don’t think President Obama liked it anymore than President Trump,” says Kozinski. “Obama expressed his views on Citizens United and the Affordable Care Act rulings. That said, a president should avoid piling on too much because we have lifetime tenure.
“That’s part of the wisdom of the founding fathers with lifetime appointments,” he concludes. “We can’t be intimidated. Presidents can rail, but they can’t remove us.”