Judiciary leaders want action on preventing sexual misconduct in courts

The leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee want to know how the office overseeing the operation of federal courts is addressing sexual misconduct and harassment in the judiciary.

Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California wrote in a letter to the head of the federal courts’ administrative agency that they were “deeply troubled” by news reports and allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behavior in the court system.

They noted the case of 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, who resigned in December after multiple former clerks and junior staffers came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. In a statement announcing his retirement released by his lawyer, Kozinkski apologized for his actions, but also defended them as part of his “broad sense of humor.”

The senators also cited a CNN investigative report that analyzed data from the Administrative Office of the US Courts and found that only four of the more than 1,300 complaints filed in the 12 months preceding September 30, 2016, were referred to a special committee for the most serious level of investigation, and that only four of the more than 1,200 complaints the year before got such a referral.

The CNN investigation also reported that fewer than 10 cases a year going back to 2006 were deeply investigated and even fewer resulted in disciplinary action. In six of the past 11 years, not a single judge was reprimanded, suspended or otherwise sanctioned for misconduct, and in some cases, judges simply retired and received their full pensions.

The senators’ request, sent last week, comes after Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts asked the director of the federal judiciary’s administrative office to assemble a working group to examine whether changes are needed in the judiciary’s standards of conduct and procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior.

In his year-end report on the state of the judiciary, Roberts said recent events “have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace” and made clear that the “judicial branch is not immune.”

In their letter, Grassley and Feinstein asked for information on how the working group will go about its business and on the number of complaints the administrative agency sees and how those complaints are investigated.

3rd US Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Theodore McKee told CNN, “It’s very difficult for someone from outside to know what’s happening, and it’s not always easy for insiders to know what was happening. The public does have an interest in knowing when there are complaints that are meritorious.”

Senators have raised concerns about the issue before. CNN reported that Hawaii Democrat Mazie Hirono, concerned about the potential for sexual abuse among judges, has begun asking judicial nominees whether they ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed verbal or physical harassment. Hirono is also asking whether they faced discipline or entered into a settlement related to such conduct.

“I was really afraid that this would be swept under the rug,” Hirono told CNN, referring to sexual harassment concerns. “It shows that we are serious about asking these questions, particularly for nominees for lifetime appointments.”