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Cathy's World: Eugene Volokh

By CATHERINE SEIPP   |   Sept. 4, 2002 at 1:43 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 4 (UPI) -- UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh was racing through a light that had just turned red one morning when he noticed something: the intersection had one of those cameras that catches lawbreakers.

Most people in that situation probably would be annoyed at the thought of getting a ticket; most libertarians, and Volokh is one, would probably also find the incident a creepy object lesson in Big Brotherish monitoring.

But more than anything, Volokh is a contrarian, which in his case means less that he enjoys going against the grain but that he can't help seeing the unexamined facets of issues more conventional thinkers overlook.

Musing about the incident as he sped along, he began forming in his mind an op-ed piece -- it appeared a couple of weeks later in the Wall Street Journal -- about how enforcing traffic laws via cameras actually frees citizens from unpleasant government interference.

"I avoided coming even briefly within a policeman's physical power, and thus avoided the risk that the power would be abused," he wrote. "I avoided the usual demeaning pressure to be especially submissive to the cop in the hopes that he might let me off the hook...I didn't have to wonder whether maybe I was stopped because of my sex or race or age. Not a bad way to enforce a pretty important law."

This interest in policy analysis is what drew Volokh, a prodigy who graduated from UCLA at age 15 with a B.S. in math and computer science, to switch from the techie life to the study of law.

"I figured that, rightly or wrongly, in America it's lawyers who get involved in public policy and who participate at that level in public debate," says Volokh, who emigrated from Kiev in the former Soviet Union at age seven with his family.

"I wanted to lead a semi-public life. I wanted to write op-eds, talk to reporters, be on talk shows, get involved in cases and initiatives and election campaigns. And, knock wood, I have gotten exactly what I wanted."

A young-looking 34, Volokh naturally looked even younger when he began teaching law at 26. This leads to occasional confusion among law students.

"They say, 'You look really young to be a law professor,'" Volokh notes. "And I always say, 'What I lack in years I make up in chutzpah.' Which has always been true!"

Volokh, who is a regular contributor to the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page, worked on Prop. 209, which banned racial preferences at the University of California and other state institutions. He is a regular media source for comments about copyright, free speech, cyberspace, affirmative action, the separation of church and state, gun control and sexual, religious and racial harassment.

Before coming to UCLA, he clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and for Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. He originally wanted to be a prosecutor, but changed his mind when he noticed as a law student that being a law professor seemed to be more fun and also offered the chance to study legal theory rather than sort through piles of facts.

A penchant for logical analysis rather than emotional argument keeps Volokh firmly to the right of most of academia. But even there he's rather contrarian, because he eschews reflexive conservative complaints about liberal bias.

His parents' experience with life under communism naturally led the family to distrust anything that smacks of government micromanagement, "but at some point things become so different, it's hard to draw analogies," Volokh notes.

"Just because Mussolini made the trains run on time doesn't mean it's a bad thing in America for the trains to run on time," he explains. "For instance, my parents are relatively pro-law enforcement. They say, well, sure, Russia was a police state, but America is not a police state. The police should be given the power to fight crime here."

Volokh can speak for precise paragraphs at a stretch on various legal aspects of social policy, but every so often the propeller-head prodigy he once was breaks through his current policy wonk persona and begins spinning.

"We'll meet at 927 Manchester," he announced one afternoon to a group he'd assembled at his home high in the West Hollywood Hills for a lecture on gun safety -- "Unsafety of any kind is my abhorrence!" -- followed by target shooting at the LAX Range near the airport.

"That's an easy address to remember," he added briskly: "Three squared followed by three cubed."

Volokh's father, Vladimir, was a computer programmer and his mother, Anne, was an English translator and freelance journalist when they left the Soviet Union with their two sons 27 years ago. (Eugene's younger brother Sasha, 29, is now completing a Harvard program that combines a law degree and a doctoral degree in economics.)

Like most immigrants, the Volokhs had to begin again in the U.S. Vladimir eventually worked his way back up from computer operator to programming and often took his sons to work during school vacations.

By the time Eugene was 12, he was put on the payroll at the company his father worked for. That same year, he adapted an accounting utility program Vladimir had written for more generalized use. Some of the sizeable profits from this new product funded Anne Volokh's Movieline magazine.

"I have heard, 'Oh, the Volokhs got so successful so fast, it must have been drug money,'" laughs Anne. "But actually it was the software."

Eugene continued earning money as a programmer all through college, and in fact is still a partner in the small software company he and his father started.

He entered UCLA as a freshman when he was 12, usually getting dropped off by his father in the morning, then taking the bus to his programming job in the afternoon. Volokh says that entering college and the work world while still a child wasn't really a huge adjustment, though his boss did at one point have to ask him to please stop all that running through the halls -- people on the floor below were complaining about noise.

As a pre-teen at UCLA, he does remember wandering over to the campus sculpture garden one day and being "very troubled" by an aggressive looking statue of a woman with large breasts.

"But my classmates were actually very nice to me even though I was often an obnoxious little kid," Volokh recalls of those years. "I would talk loud in class, often on point, but sometimes not. I think they saw me as an odd and amusing curiosity."

Odd and amusing curiosities, as it happens, regularly dance through Volokh's brain, fighting for space with serious ideas like the one he had recently about how to reconcile libertarian antagonism against motorcycle helmet laws with the reality of a society that funds emergency rooms with taxpayers' money.

Volokh's solution: two different kinds of motorcycle license plates, one that requires proof of (expensive) insurance for helmetless riding, and one that doesn't.

But he also regularly comes up with fancies like the "Hum a Few Bar Exam," with questions taken from popular songs. "Evidence: Can my admitting that I shot the sheriff be used as prior bad act evidence in my trial for shooting the deputy? If I want to introduce my prior denial of shooting the deputy, will I be barred from the hearsay rule?"

"I had an epiphany the other day," he said, chatting in the kitchen of his West Hollywood hills home. "You'd think that people with the classical names of poets would be the children of Northeastern college professors. But Virgil, Homer, Horace...they're all hick names! I'm going to call this Volokh's Law of American Culture."

One day I checked onto Volokh's Web site (volokh.blogspot.com) and noticed that he'd posted a math puzzle his father used to pose to him and his brother when they were children. Then came bit of musing about how his name was changed when the Volokhs moved to America from Yevgeniy, "a rather romantic sounding name in Russian, to Eugene, which, lets face it, is pretty dweeby. On the other hand, I did end up with one of the few names that comes attached to its own scientific discipline, albeit one that's in rather ill repute."

Oh, about that camera that caught Volokh running the red light. He did end up getting a ticket. But he remained typically sanguine about what to most people would be a real irritation.

As he puts it: "I was busted fair and square. I really am way too impatient a driver."

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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