Judicial system needs confidential harassment reporting system

January 10, 2018 GMT

A lifetime appointment to a federal bench should not carry immunity from investigation when it come to violation of sexual harassment policies in the workplace.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has taken the proper steps in launching a formal evaluation of procedures in place to protect law clerks and other court employees from sexual harassment.

The move comes on the heels of the retirement of Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit based in San Francisco. His retirement followed allegations of improper sexual conduct. Kozinski, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1985, has been accused of misconduct by at least six former law clerks and junior staff members.

Two days after the appellate judge resigned, a letter with close to 700 signatures was sent to the chief justice in mid-December asking the federal judiciary to consider ways to address workplace harassment. Those signing the letter included former clerks, current clerks and more than 100 law professors.

“We believe that significant changes are necessary to address the potential for harassment of employees who work in the federal court system, the confidentiality principles that apply to work in chambers, and the risk that these confidentiality provisions can be used to shield, if not enable, harassment,” the letter writers said.

Robert has assigned James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Court, to form a committee to examine the issue and report back by May 1.

The letter from the clerks and law professors offers some good starting points. The group suggested revisions to the Law Clerk Handbook to provide guidance on handling sexual harassment — ending any ambiguity about whom to report.

They also recommend establishing a confidential national reporting system. Under the current system, victims of sexual harassment in the judiciary are directed to report the abuse to their judge or told that the harassment report will be shared with their judge. That only serves to further complicate things when the subject of the complaint is the judge.

There is an imbalance of power when it comes to judges and staffs. Employees in the judicial system need a reporting system in which the fear of retaliation for speaking up is minimized.

The message that no one, not even a lifetime appointee to a federal bench, is exempt from the rules when it comes to sexual harassment policies needs to be sent out loud and clear.