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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.

FILE PHOTO: Judge Alex Kozinski, of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, gestures during oral arguments in San Francisco, California, U.S., September 22, 2003. REUTERS/Paul Sakuma/POOL/File Photo

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge said he was retiring immediately from the lifetime appointment 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 wrongdoing. Reuters has not verified any of the accusations.

Kozinski’s statement said he has “always had a broad sense of humour and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike” and “may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace.”

“It grieves me to learn that I caused any of my clerks to feel uncomfortable; this was never my intent,” he said.

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.

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 appointed to the appeals court in 1985.

A refugee from Romania and a self-described libertarian, Kozinski is known for his judicial opinions on free speech and due process rights of criminal defendants.

In a 2010 dissenting opinion, Kozinski wrote it was unconstitutional for police officers to use a GPS device to track a criminal suspect. Kozinski’s views in that case were later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In March, Kozinski criticized his fellow 9th Circuit judges for blocking President Donald Trump’s travel ban targeting people from Muslim-majority countries, saying the president’s campaign statements should not have been used as evidence of discriminatory intent. The U.S. Supreme Court in December allowed the latest version of the travel ban to go into effect.

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 2009 report, 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.

It is rare for accusations of misconduct against judges to result in impeachment, said Ronald Rotunda, a professor of legal ethics at Chapman University School of Law. But the latest misconduct proceeding against Kozinski could have resulted in a serious reprimand because of the “tremendous nationwide publicity,” Rotunda said.

Reporting by Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Alison Frankel; Writing by Susan Heavey; Editing by Frances Kerry and Howard Goller