Federal Judiciary Asks Clerks To Weigh In On Preventing Sexual Harassment

Federal courts want to hear from current and former clerks about how to improve internal policies relating to workplace conduct and will begin tracking and reporting complaints involving sex harassment.

A working group ordered up by Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts following allegations of sexual harassment against former appeals court Judge Alex Kozinski has opened a comment line on uscourts.gov.

The site invites submissions from current and former employees “regarding the federal Judiciary’s policies and procedures for protecting employees from inappropriate workplace conduct.”

The comments may be submitted anonymously through March 21. They will not be made public.

The portal is one of the early initiatives of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, which is tasked with reviewing the mechanisms within the federal court system for preventing workplace misconduct.

Harassment allegations last year against Kozinski, who’s since resigned his seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, involved several women, including former clerks.

The assertions placed the judiciary squarely in the harsh, public spotlight over sexual harassment. Similar allegations revealed in late 2017 and this year have rocked media, politics, business and entertainment.

Kozinski said it was never his intent to make clerks feel uncomfortable, and apologized for doing so. An investigation by Judicial Council of the Second Circuit was terminated this month because he was no longer part of the federal judiciary.

The working group had its first in-person meeting in February and plans to meet again in early March, according to a statement by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which oversees federal court operations.

So far, the working group has reviewed confidentiality provisions on the court website and in employee handbooks to make it clear that the provisions don’t prohibit employees coming forward to report sexual harassment.

The group has also expanded conduct training for judges and other court employees. Chief district and bankruptcy judges will receive in-person training this spring, and new chief judges will be trained in the fall, according to the courts.

Separately, the federal courts will begin tracking and reporting the number of complaints related to sexual harassment, according to James C. Duff, director of the court’s administrative office.

In a Feb. 16 letter sent to the top Republican and Democrat of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Duff said the panel has not been tracking that category because “in most years there simply have been no complaints relating to sexual harassment.”

The lawmakers had sought answers from Duff about a CNN report that found 1,303 judicial misconduct complaints were filed in 2016, but only four were referred to a special committee for “the most serious level of investigation.”

The network notes a similar pattern in 2015 and asks why so few complaints were fully investigated.

In his letter, Duff called media reports “wildly misleading.”

He said the federal Judiciary received 1,303 “judicial misconduct” complaints in fiscal 2016, most by “dissatisfied litigants and prison inmates.” No law clerks or judiciary employees filed related complaints and none that got a second look involved sexual misconduct.

— With assistance from Melissa Heelan Stanzione

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

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