All rise: It’s time for the judiciary to live by the anti-discrimination laws it enforces

The Judiciary Accountability Act would target harassment and discrimination in the third branch of government

It’s long past time for the federal judiciary to follow Congress’ lead in protecting its employees from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, Speier and Coll write.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
It’s long past time for the federal judiciary to follow Congress’ lead in protecting its employees from harassment and discrimination in the workplace, Speier and Coll write. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 17, 2021 at 6:00am

Almost four years ago, when the world was changed by Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement and by the viral storm unleashed when survivors of serial sexual predator Harvey Weinstein bravely declared their #MeToo moments, we both shared our personal experiences with sexual harassment in Congress publicly for the first time.

Our stories differed slightly: One took place more than 40 years ago, the other more recently, in 2004; one involved a sitting member of the Senate, the other a powerful staffer in the House; one of us had her face grabbed and a tongue forced down her throat, the other had her buttocks groped. But the similarities were striking: blatant instances of sexual harassment perpetrated by men more than thirty years our senior in the very institution that had made such conduct illegal in almost every other workplace in America.

We both decided to speak out about encounters we’d spent our entire careers keeping quiet about because we shared the same desire: to create a better working environment for the next generation of staffers and members of Congress. That’s why we worked together to draft, champion and ultimately pass the Congressional Accountability Act, or CAA, Reform Act — a bipartisan, comprehensive bill to overhaul Congress’ procedures for addressing harassment and discrimination. It wasn’t easy, in an increasingly polarized environment in Washington, but by the end of the next calendar year, both the House and Senate had unanimously passed the bill and it was signed into law. In doing so, Congress sent a critical message to its employees that they have a statutory right to work in a safe, harassment-free environment.

Yet today there remains one workplace where federal employees are still not protected by the foundational federal statutes — such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — that prohibit sex-based harassment, discrimination and retaliation in the workplace: the federal judiciary. Despite its role as the key institution responsible for interpreting, enforcing, and applying those laws to every other employer in the United States, and notwithstanding decades of advocacy efforts and congressional oversight, the judiciary to this day has deprived more than 30,000 people who work there basic statutory protections.

In 2018, as Congress was hard at work on the CAA Reform Act, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to ensure the judicial branch would take similar steps after more than a dozen women came forward about the sexual harassment they suffered while working for one of the most influential federal judges in the country. After hearing from several experts who urged the judiciary to enact much-needed reforms, the director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts assured Congress that the judiciary was “committed to ensuring an exemplary workplace for every judge and court employee” and that it would take meaningful steps to do so.

Last year, in light of mounting evidence that the judiciary’s existing policies and procedures were still failing to protect its employees from sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct, the House Judiciary Committee held a follow-up hearing at which former law clerk Olivia Warren testified about the myriad “frustrations and obstacles” she encountered attempting to report the sexual harassment she suffered during her clerkship. She described how she was warned to “brace myself for ‘your grandfather’s sexism’” before the clerkship had even begun. She detailed how she worked for a respected jurist who repeatedly questioned the validity of her marriage while declaring that the allegations of sexual harassment against people like Weinstein were made by women who had initially “wanted it” and that women were liars who could not be trusted.

Congress must now pass the bipartisan Judiciary Accountability Act, or JAA — a bill introduced last month in the House by me, Jackie Speier, Hank Johnson, D-Ga., Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., Norma Torres, D-Calif., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., and in the Senate by Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that would provide statutory workplace protections to employees of the federal judiciary.

Drawing from the comprehensive reforms enacted through the CAA Reform Act, the JAA would implement urgently needed reforms such as providing judiciary employees with the same statutory right to be free from discrimination and retaliation; creating a nationwide workplace misconduct prevention program; conducting a review of employee experiences with harassment in the judiciary; and holding accountable supervisors and others in positions of power who ignore or trivialize complaints of workplace misconduct.

As more than 70 former law clerks wrote in a statement last year, there is “no justification for a system in which antidiscrimination law applies to all except those who interpret and enforce it.” It’s long past time for the judiciary to follow Congress’ lead and commit to living by the same principles and laws it requires other employers to abide by.

Rep. Jackie Speier is a Democrat representing California’s 14th District. She serves on the House Armed Services, Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform committees and co-chairs the Democratic Women’s Caucus and the House Whistleblower Protection Caucus.

Ally Coll, a lawyer and former House and Senate staffer, is the president and co-founder of The Purple Campaign, a nonprofit organization with a mission to address workplace harassment by implementing stronger corporate policies and establishing better laws.