San Francisco Chronicle

Judge reaches cancel-culture fame

- By Jay Willis Jay Willis is a writer who covers courts, politics and democracy. He is editor in chief of Balls & Strikes. Twitter: @jaywillis

In 2018, President Donald Trump appointed Stuart Kyle Duncan to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the most conservati­ve federal appeals court in the country. Duncan was a natural fit: Before taking the bench, he was best known for representi­ng the conservati­ve owners of Hobby Lobby craft stores chafing under the burden of having to provide their employees with health care that includes contracept­ive access.

In 2016, Duncan referred to Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that recognized a constituti­onal right to same-sex marriage, as an “abject failure” that “imperils civic peace.”

As a judge, Duncan has done more of the same. Last spring, he joined an unsigned opinion ordering President Biden to deploy unvaccinat­ed Navy SEALs, the strenuous objections of military leaders notwithsta­nding. Two years before that, he used a transgende­r woman’s request that the court use her preferred pronouns as an excuse to uncork a bizarre, Fox News-esque screed bemoaning the vagaries of gender identity politics.

All this time playing in the culture war sandbox made Duncan an attractive guest speaker candidate for Stanford Law School’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a well-heeled organizati­on of conservati­ve lawyers more or less responsibl­e for Trump’s judicial nomination­s agenda. On Thursday, Duncan arrived on campus for an event billed as a discussion of “COVID, guns and Twitter” over compliment­ary lunch. Students who find some or all of Duncan’s jurisprude­nce objectiona­ble planned a protest.

Things unraveled quickly. Duncan, who was expecting a hostile audience, kicked things off by filming protesters on his phone; one witness characteri­zed him as “looking for a fight,” and “more like a YouTuber storming the Capitol, than a federal judge coming to speak.” Shortly after the event began, Duncan appealed to the school’s administra­tion for help with his hecklers. Associate Dean Tirien Steinbach, who had also prepared for fireworks, stood and acknowledg­ed the legitimacy of the students’ anger toward Duncan before reiteratin­g his right to speak. The judge, visibly flustered, decided to open the floor for questions.

This is not to suggest that Duncan answered them in any meaningful sense. Video shows Duncan yelling at students, accusing them of “willfully misunderst­anding” him. Throughout, his tone ping-pongs between smirking condescens­ion and righteous indignatio­n; at Stanford Law School, he proclaims, “the inmates have gotten control of the asylum.” A simple question about the reasoning of the opinion about the transgende­r litigant’s pronouns reduced Duncan to a splutterin­g mess. After functional­ly ignoring it, he concluded: “Thanks to the Federalist Society for inviting me. As far as the rest of you people — yeah, whatever.”

Reasonable­ness, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But for my money, it is genuinely weird how badly Duncan, who is perhaps unaccustom­ed to audiences who don’t share his worldview, loses it. Literally on his way out the door, Duncan — again, a life-tenured federal judge who is supposed to “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiali­ty of the judiciary” — calls a woman an “appalling idiot.”

Much of the fallout has centered on who, exactly, is the bad guy here: the law students who were rude to a federal judge or the federal judge who gave at least as good as he got. Stanford, forever mindful of its desire to remain in the good graces of powerful people, issued a formal apology that did not satisfy the army of politician­s and pundits (and Duncan) who demanded that the school discipline the protesters and/or fire Steinbach. The fact that the target of their outrage is a woman of color is, I am sure, a coincidenc­e.

No matter who you think behaved worse here, the answer doesn’t matter for Duncan, because he got what he wanted: fame. Ever since Brett Kavanaugh’s shameless partisan histrionic­s got him confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018, maintenanc­e of a dignified temperamen­t has hardly been a prerequisi­te for Republican judicial candidates. As Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern noted, it’s hard not to view Duncan’s performanc­e as a not-so-subtle audition for the next Supreme Court vacancy that arises under a Republican president. If he were honest, he wouldn’t be excoriatin­g protesters for “silencing” him at some forgettabl­e law school lunch event. He’d be thanking them for making him an overnight celebrity in the circles that matter most.

Regrettabl­y, Duncan’s experience at Stanford will not be the end of the Kyle Duncan experience. Trump appointed more than 200 federal judges during his presidency, many of whom share Duncan’s passion for infusing the law with their reactionar­y policy preference­s. Collective­ly, these justices and judges have ended the right to abortion care, made it more difficult for lawmakers to protect Americans from gun violence and further reduced the right to vote to a polite-sounding nullity. They are also just getting started.

In such a competitiv­e field, Republican lawyers with lofty career ambitions will have to find creative ways to distinguis­h themselves from their fellow culture warriors. By making his play for the attention that follows cancel-culture victimhood, Duncan showed them the way forward.

In a conservati­ve legal movement fueled by an unending supply of grievances, strategic self-martyrdom is about to become a lucrative business.

 ?? Courtesy Jay Willis ?? Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit speaks to students at Stanford Law School, where students shouted him down during his visit in protest of the Trump-appointed judge.
Courtesy Jay Willis Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit speaks to students at Stanford Law School, where students shouted him down during his visit in protest of the Trump-appointed judge.

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