Federal Courts and Nominations

‘Best Professor.’ ‘Very Evenhanded.’ ‘Great Hair!’: Brett Kavanaugh, as Seen by His Law Students

Anonymous evaluations of professors by their students can be caustic or catty. But they are also unfailingly candid, and collectively they paint a revealing picture of a teacher’s strengths and weaknesses.

Over the last decade, about 350 law students at Harvard, Yale and Georgetown expressed views on classes offered by Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. With rare exceptions, they praised his mastery of legal materials, intellectual rigor, fair-mindedness and accessibility.

“I honestly believe I took a class that was instructed by a future Supreme Court justice,” a Georgetown student wrote in 2007.

Judge Kavanaugh’s students did not hesitate to criticize the casebook he used (“the textbook is horrible!”) or to comment on personal attributes not particularly germane to his teaching (“great hair!”). Many students complained that there was too much reading. Early on, some said he was repetitive and not well organized. There was occasional griping that a few students dominated the class discussion.

But on the whole, in 12 sets of evaluations spanning 700 pages, there was almost only glowing praise for Judge Kavanaugh’s teaching. More than a few students said he was the most impressive law school professor they had encountered.

“Significantly better than any full-time faculty I’ve had,” a Harvard student wrote. “Kavanaugh is the best professor I have had in law school,” wrote another. “Best class I’ve taken at HLS by a mile,” said a third.

Judge Kavanaugh taught once at Georgetown and once at Yale but did most of his teaching at Harvard, where he was hired by Justice Elena Kagan, who was the law school’s dean before her appointment first as solicitor general and then as a Supreme Court justice by President Barack Obama. Some Harvard students said his class attracted a larger than usual proportion of conservative students, particularly in the early years.

“There was a heavy Federalist Society tilt in the enrollment of the class,” one student wrote, “but Judge Kavanaugh’s presentation seemed very evenhanded.”

Another student agreed. “While most of the class shared rather conservative views,” the student wrote, “the judge presented the other side quite well, even though he likely shared most of those conservative views.” The student added that “many of the HLS professors could learn from his acceptance of views across the political spectrum.”

A second-year student in 2014 wrote that Judge Kavanaugh “let his personal ideology bleed into his teaching a bit (but tried to pay attention and correct for that, which was great).”

In fact, a major complaint from his students was about the textbook he used, with students saying it was “biased,” “very slanted” and “far left.” Judge Kavanaugh told them that it was the only one that covered the relevant materials.

Colleen Roh Sinzdak, who took a class of his in 2009, said Judge Kavanaugh’s presentations were balanced.

“I’m definitely on the left,” she said. “If you didn’t know — and in fact I did not know at the time, and was told later — that Judge Kavanaugh had worked in the Bush administration, I don’t think you would have been able to say this is a conservative.”

Elizabeth B. Wydra, the president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal group, said it would be a mistake to read too much into the evaluations, which were made available to The New York Times by Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation team.

“Just because he’s a nice guy or a great teacher doesn’t mean he should be a Supreme Court justice,” she said. “It might mean that he will be able to persuade his colleagues more readily or speak to the public more effectively in his opinions, but none of that matters in terms of his fitness for the bench if he has a skewed vision of the law.”

But J.D. Vance, the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and a former student of Judge Kavanaugh’s at Yale, said good teachers and good judges shared important qualities, including civility and intellectual honesty.

“He really didn’t like it when you’d try to tear down another argument unfairly,” said Mr. Vance, whose wife, Usha Vance, served as a law clerk to Judge Kavanaugh. “He really wanted you to identify the best version of an argument and not assume that your intellectual opponents were all idiots. That goes to how he’ll treat litigants. It goes to how he’ll treat his colleagues on the bench.”

At Harvard, he would typically teach during a brief winter term in January for 12 weekday mornings in a row. He mostly taught about the separation of powers, but recently, and perhaps propitiously, he turned his attention to the Supreme Court.

The classes were three hours long, and they generally started with a discussion of current events. In the afternoons, he held office hours, where students said they felt welcome to talk about the class, the law and their futures. Most nights, he invited six or eight students to dinner. There was a party the night before the last class.

He was, one student wrote, “the most accessible prof outside of class I have ever had.” Another said that “access outside of class was simply unprecedented.”

Ms. Sinzdak went on to serve as a law clerk to Judge Merrick B. Garland, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was blockaded by Senate Republicans, and to Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. She said Judge Kavanaugh was supportive every step of the way.

“I chose to clerk for Judge Garland instead of Judge Kavanaugh, and he never remotely held it against me,” she said. “I don’t know for sure, but I feel like he was pretty instrumental in helping me get my clerkship” with Chief Justice Roberts.

Some students may have signed up for Judge Kavanaugh’s classes in the hope of getting a clerkship with him, which was prestigious in itself and often a steppingstone to a clerkship at the Supreme Court. But only three of his students went on to clerk for him.

On Thursday, scores of Judge Kavanaugh’s former students at Harvard released a letter describing him as “a rigorous thinker, a devoted teacher and a gracious person.”

Judge Kavanaugh’s class at Yale, in 2011, was on national security law. It included a field trip to Washington, where students attended a Supreme Court argument in a major separation-of-powers case and met with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whom Judge Kavanaugh now hopes to replace, and Paul D. Clement, a former United States solicitor general.

Fifteen students submitted course evaluations, and all contained superlatives. The class was “outstanding,” “excellent,” “my favorite,” “the best,” “possibly the best,” “one of the most fascinating,” “incredible” and “fantastic.”

“It was very refreshing,” one student wrote, “to have a professor who has some work experience and who is not liberal.”

While Judge Kavanaugh’s students may have held him in generally high regard, his nomination has been divisive in the nation’s leading law schools, which lean left, and particularly at Yale Law School, of which he is a graduate.

More than 700 current and former law students at Yale signed an open letter chastising the law school’s administration for issuing a news releasenoting his nomination and gathering positive comments from faculty members.

“Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination,” the letter said, “presents an emergency — for democratic life, for our safety and freedom, for the future of our country.”

The law school’s news release concerning Judge Kavanaugh was similar to earlier ones issued after other alumni were nominated to high positions, including Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A second open letter, signed by more than 300 current and former students, wrote that Judge Kavanaugh “has been a valuable friend to the Yale community” and was “eminently qualified to serve as a Supreme Court justice.”

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