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U.S. appeals judge steps down amid harassment inquiry

(Reuters) – Alex Kozinski, a renowned U.S. federal appeals court judge based in San Francisco, resigned on Monday after the court’s chief judge initiated an inquiry into harassment accusations, Kozinski said in a statement.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge said he was retiring immediately to avoid being a distraction for the federal judiciary.

The Washington Post, which on Monday first reported the retirement, said earlier this month that six women had come forward to accuse Kozinski, 67, of subjecting them to inappropriate sexual conduct or comments. The newspaper followed with a second report with nine additional accusers.

“Family and friends have urged me to stay on, at least long enough to defend myself. But I cannot be an effective judge and simultaneously fight this battle. Nor would such a battle be good for my beloved federal judiciary,” Kozinski wrote in the statement, released by his lawyer. “And so I am making the decision to retire, effective immediately.”

The chief judge of the San Francisco-based court, Sidney Thomas, last week initiated an inquiry into the accusations by former law clerks and student externs against Kozinski.

The initiation of a complaint is not a finding of any wrongdoing. Reuters has not verified any of the accusations.

There has been a wave of accusations in recent months of sexual harassment or other misconduct by prominent men in American politics, entertainment and media.

Federal judges hold lifetime appointments and Circuit Court judges are just below the justices on the U.S. Supreme Court in their power to shape the country’s law. Federal circuits hear appeals from federal trial courts within a larger geographic region. The 9th Circuit is the largest in the United States, covering nine Western states, including California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington.

Law students compete fiercely for clerkships with judges like Kozinski, which are considered highly prestigious and can affect a young lawyer’s career prospects.

Kozinski worked as a lawyer in President Ronald Reagan’s White House before being nominated to the appeals court in 1985.

A self-identified libertarian, Kozinski has written influential judicial opinions on free speech and due process rights of criminal defendants. In 1990 he said the First Amendment includes the right to yell profanities and make an obscene gesture at a police officer.

A federal appeals court previously scolded but did not punish Kozinski for maintaining a personal server that contained some sexually explicit images that could be viewed by the public. In its report in 2009 the judiciary found Kozinski had not intended to make the images public and had removed them, but nevertheless had caused an embarrassment to the federal bench.

Reporting by Alison Frankel and Anthony Lin; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Meredith Mazzilli, Howard Goller and Frances Kerry

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