Appeals Court Taps Law Clerk Focus Groups on Sex Harassment

A special committee of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit tasked with preventing sexual harassment in its own house is conducting focus groups with current and former law clerks.

It also has sent a confidential questionnaire to approximately 6,000 current employees and current and former law clerks to collect suggestions on circuit policies, training, and other programs to improve the workplace.

These steps stem from fallout over claims of sexual harassment made last year by former clerks and other women against Ninth Circuit judge Alex Kozinski, who has since resigned.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas formed the Workplace Environment Committee to review the court’s policies and procedures around workplace harassment.

The committee, which is chaired by Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown of San Diego, is also a member of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group.

That group was established in January by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts in response to the Kozinski allegations to look at the issue within federal courts nationally. It also wants to hear from current and former clerks about how to improve internal policies relating to workplace conduct.

The Ninth Circuit committee has conducted focus groups with current law clerks, and plans to conduct additional groups with former clerks, current employees, and law school deans.

“The committee is dedicating substantial time and resources to this endeavor and we anticipate making recommendations for changes in policies and for circuit-wide training,” McKeown told Big Law Business in an e-mailed statement.

Both the Federal Judiciary group and the Ninth Circuit group have recently focused their attention on clerks and other court employees, many of whom say past workplace policies have ignored the power dynamics between judges and those who work for them.

A group of nearly 700 current and former employees, led by Ninth Circuit clerks, asked Roberts in a letter last December for significant changes in workplace policies.

“In the past, clerks have been told to report any harassment to their judge or that any reports of harassment will be provided to their judge,” they wrote. “This system is flawed for a number of reasons, including that the judge may be the perpetrator of the misconduct or the clerk may be new to the environment.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is also looking into the matter.

— With assistance from Melissa Heelan Stanzione

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Russell-Kraft at srussellkraft@gmail.com.

To contact the editors on this story: Casey Sullivan at csullivan@bloomberglaw.com and John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com.