Advocates: More Women Judges Would Curb Harassment in Judiciary

‘If 85 percent of the nominees are white men, it’s not going to create a lot of positive change’

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, says she asks specific questions about sexual harassment while nominees are under oath, to make sure they’re on record regarding the subject. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Senators can help address sexual harassment in the judicial branch by paying attention to the lack of women that President Donald Trump has appointed to be federal judges, two witnesses told the Judiciary Committee at a hearing Wednesday.

Jamie Santos, a former federal law clerk now in private practice who has compiled stories about the prevalence of harassment such as getting sexual questions at job interviews or being groped or kissed, made the comment in response to a question from Sen. John Kennedy, R-La.

“I think we’ve decided as a society and a culture, that we do not want to be a country of creepy old men — or creepy young men for that matter,” Kennedy said. “What has changed?”

Santos responded that more women are starting to be in positions of power, “and the more women you have who are serving as those powerful roles, the more these issues get raised, and the more they get addressed.”

“Which is why I urge this committee to look really carefully at the nominees who are being put into the judiciary,” Santos said. “If 85 percent of the nominees are white men, it’s not going to create a lot of positive change.”

Another witness, Jenny Yang, a former chairwoman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who studied sexual harassment in the workplace, told the committee she agreed with Santos’ comments. She is now a partner at a firm that advises companies on harassment prevention.

The testimony came at a committee hearing on a report that the judicial branch released this month, aimed at what the federal courts can do to better deal with workplace misconduct.

Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, said that is one of the reasons she asks specific questions about sexual assaults and harassment behavior of all the nominees who come before the committees she sits on.

“These nominees are under oath,” Hirono said at the hearing. “And I ask these questions because they have never been asked before, and people need to be on the record as to their behaviors before they get lifetime appointments, in terms of the judiciary, to the court.”

Trump’s judicial nominees have been mostly white and mostly male, according to statistics compiled by Alliance for Justice, a liberal non-profit that follows picks for the federal bench.

So far, 76 percent of Trump’s judicial appointments have been men, and 88 percent of all those confirmed by the Senate have been white, AFJ stats show. The pending nominees have similar percentages.

For President Barack Obama, 58 percent of his confirmed judges were men, while 64 percent of his appointees were white. Both of those were historic lows for presidential picks for the bench.

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday that the judicial branch’s report on how to address workplace misconduct was vague and fell short in various ways, such as not creating a nationwide complaint process to report misconduct.

Grassley said that since he announced the hearing last week, current and former employees contacted the committee to report sexual harassment and other misconduct.

“The accounts of these whistleblowers often included phrases like: ‘I wouldn’t go to the chief judge, if you did you could be fired,’” Grassley said. “Courthouse staff, some separated by thousands of miles, were told things like: ‘the chief judge has my back.’ It was not unusual for these accounts to include staff reporting incidents to their HR director only to be met with a response of ‘oh no, not again’ or ‘I hope it’s not the person I think it is because the chief will be really angry.’”

Although there are ways to report misconduct, it is underreported in the judicial branch, said James Duff, the director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. He testified that the judicial branch had zero judicial conduct complaints about sexual harassment in 2017.

“I do want to offer an apology to all victims of harassment in the judiciary,” Duff said. “I don’t know anybody in our branch who doesn’t feel the same way as I do about it.”

Santos testified she knows of current judges where it is known they engaged in misconduct in the last few months.

“As I understand it, this isn’t from decades ago, but in some cases as recently as last year,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top Democrat, said. “This says to me that there is, in fact, a serious problem. It says that reporting is not happening. And it says that change is necessary.”

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