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Kavanaugh Hires Tiger Cub, and Out Come the Knives!

Vivia Chen

June 17, 2019

Sophia and Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld with Tiger Mom Amy Chua. (Photo: Wikipedia)


Like duh. So, of course, the No. 1 daughter of Tiger Mom (that’s Yale Law prof Amy Chua, if you need reminding) is heading to the U.S. Supreme Court to clerk for Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

That was a no-brainer. First of all, you’ll remember that even before “I-Like-Beer” Kavanaugh became a household name, Chua’s daughter Sophia Chua-Rubenfeld was already slated to clerk for him on the Court of Appeals. Plus, her mom adored the guy, extolling his record of hiring female clerks (she helped place 10 or so female Yale Law graduates as his clerks) in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal after his nomination to the Supreme Court (though before the sexual allegations against him by Christine Blasey Ford came out).

Bingo! Now, Sophia is off to the high court!

The upshot: Tiger Mom, along with Tiger Cub, is getting slammed by the media. The gist of the criticism is that Chua wrote the op-ed to curry favor with Kavanaugh in order to get her daughter that coveted high court clerkship.

Financial Times writer Edward Luce calls Chua “a shrewd string-puller,” saying that “overnight the Chuas have turned into emblems of what Americans distrust about their meritocracy.” Slate’s Jeremy Stahl essentially makes similar criticisms, suggesting that the Chuas “might apologize to [Above the Law’s Elie] Mystal [who wrote a year ago that Chua’s op-ed was self-serving], or turn down the clerkship if they “had anything resembling shame.”

So are the criticisms fair to Chua and her daughter? Well, yes. And no.

First, the timing of her hiring is awful—really awful. It happened barely a year after that fawning op-ed by Chua and Sophia’s own declaration on Twitter that she had no plans to clerk for the Supreme Court because of her military obligations (she served in the ROTC in college). While it’s plausible that Sophia didn’t expect the Army to allow her another deferment (she’s now clerking for Britt Grant, judge on the 11th Circuit), why the rush to clerk for Kavanaugh now? I mean, Kavanaugh will be there for a long, long time, and she could clerk for him after her Army stint.

It’s almost as if Kavanaugh is rubbing our noses in it, says CNN commentator Kate Maltby: “Appointing the daughter of the powerful woman who may have helped your nomination—it’s the latest way to ‘own the libs.’ Kavanaugh wants us to know he simply doesn’t care what we think of him. He’s won.”

But where some critics lost me is when they overplay the nepotism and privilege argument. Yeah, Sophia has a leg up as the daughter of two Yale Law School professors, but comparing her situation to the low-performing students caught in the recent college admissions cheating scandal? Seriously?

Vogue quips: “For fans of Operation Varsity Blues comes another twisted tale of privilege.” And FT’s Luce rails that what Chua did was considered legal, while “actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, on the other hand, are accused of having broken the law.”

Some of the criticisms devolved into a tirade about class and economic status. New York Magazine rants about the tuition at the private school where Chua’s daughters attended, adding, “Their children were bound for the Ivy League no matter how well they played the piano, or how long they stood in the cold. The Kavanaugh clerkship is gilt leaf on an already privileged life.”

Ok. Maybe. But so what?

By all accounts, Sophia was a stellar student, who served as the articles editor of the Yale Law Journal and graduated at the top of her class.

Above the Law founder and Yale Law grad David Lat, who broke the story of Sophia’s clerkship on his Twitter feed on the Supreme Court, says: “Sophia was incredibly qualified: Harvard undergrad, ROTC, and Yale Law, where she had perfect grades.” He adds: “The legal-genius apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. We shouldn’t be surprised when smart, high-powered lawyers breed and produce more smart, high-powered lawyers.”

That’s a bit gushy, but I get Lat’s drift: Sophia is no Kim Kardashian. No doubt she’s got the chops to land a Supreme Court clerkship.

Which gets to my larger point: It’s unfortunate that there’s a cloud over her clerkship. We’ll never know if Chua wrote that op-ed mainly for her daughter’s benefit, nor will we know if it mattered. Let’s remember that Chua was hardly the only woman who came out defending him. His former female clerks wrote an impassioned letter to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee endorsing his nomination. Fair or not, it raises the appearance of impropriety. There’s a lingering smell of something foul.

Sadly, it all seems to reinforce the transactional ethos of our time. I won’t bore you with all the current and former Trump administration officials who seem to have little compunction about leveraging their position for personal gain, except to say that there seems to be a quid pro quo for everything.

I have no reason to doubt that Sophia is super-qualified to be a Supreme Court clerk. I just wish she were clerking for another justice.


Contact Vivia Chen at vchen@alm.com. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.

Now, Chua and Rubenfeld didn't clerk for SCOTUS -- but my broader point is that we shouldn't be surprised when smart, high-powered lawyers breed and produce more smart, high-powered lawyers.


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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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