Senate Judiciary urges response to sexual harassment in federal courts

Senate Judiciary urges response to sexual harassment in federal courts
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Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyFord's lawyer: Hearing doesn't appear to be designed for 'fair', 'respectful' treatment GOP opens door to holding Kavanaugh committee vote this week Press: Judge Kavanaugh must withdraw MORE (R-Iowa) said the judicial branch has a problem with sexual harassment and if it doesn’t deal with it, Congress will.

The comment came at a committee hearing on Wednesday to discuss the prevalence of sexual harassment in the federal judiciary.

"The federal judiciary ... is the pinnacle of our laws and society," said Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinHere's what the judiciary committee should ask Christine Blasey Ford Kavanaugh to address sexual misconduct allegations on Fox News Monday Kavanaugh accuser Ford to Grassley: 'My fear will not hold me back from testifying' MORE (D-Calif.), the committee's ranking member.

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"It's where all Americans go to have their rights protected, and we look to federal judges and those who work for them to exemplify the ideals of our society, so I am really very concerned that this hearing is even necessary."

The hearing stemmed from December reports in The Washington Post detailing allegations that Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent appellate judge, subjected law clerks and other women to sexual misconduct or inappropriate comments.

The reports marked the first allegations to come from the judiciary during the "Me Too" movement.

Kozinski, who served for many years as the chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, later resigned, and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts created a working committee to address the issue, according to media reports.

In a report earlier this month, the working group said it found inappropriate conduct is not pervasive in the judiciary but said it needs to improve its procedures for identifying and correcting misconduct.

“The working group found the judiciary has a demonstrated history of dealing with misconduct very aggressively when we know about it and that our system to handle workplace conduct complaints works when it’s utilized, but it’s not utilized often,” James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, who led the working group, told the committee.

Both Democrats and Republicans slammed the report.

Grassley said the report fell short in numerous ways, noting that it “gave no apology for, or even acknowledgement of, what went wrong in the case of Judge Kozinski, and it didn’t indicate how its recommendations will prevent a similar scenario from happening again.”

Duff tried to correct that oversight Wednesday, offering an apology to all victims of sexual harassment.

Feinstein, meanwhile, criticized the working group for not quantifying the prevalence of sexual harassment in the federal courts, which Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R-La.) tried to get Duff to reveal in his line of questioning.

“It’s not as prevalent as it is in other workplaces, but that’s not important," Duff said when asked how pervasive it is.

But Kennedy pressed him for a definitive answer.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being off the chart, Harvey Weinstein, on another planet?” he asked, referring to the disgraced Hollywood producer whose alleged sexual misconduct ignited the "Me Too" movement.

Duff then stumbled over his answer before finally saying that whatever he says would just be a guess.

“It’s too much,” he said. “Whatever it is, it’s too much, and we’re going to do something about it.”

But Jamie Santos, an associate at Goodwin Procter LLP in Washington, D.C., who has been working with law clerks in urging the courts to take action, criticized the working group for not studying even the current allegations that led to the group's formation.

“The working group missed the opportunity to conduct a study of employees’ past experiences with harassment or abusive behavior,” she said.

“Aside from one cryptic sentence in the working group’s report that inappropriate conduct isn’t limited to a few isolated instances, the working group’s report is entirely forward looking, but you can’t solve a problem if you haven’t studied its scope."

Grassley said the committee learned through its investigation that it was an open secret in the federal judiciary that Kozinski routinely sexually harassed or abused law clerks.

“Was the Chief Justice of the United States or his team, including you, aware of these allegations before The Washington Post broke its story on Dec. 8, 2018?” he asked Duff.

Duff said he was unaware of any complaints.

“That is the problem we’ve been trying to address, which is a complaint wasn’t filed and how do we get at that problem,” he said.