Senators concerned that federal courts fall short in handling sexual misconduct

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By Sean Sullivan and Matt Zapotosky,

Top senators expressed concerns Wednesday that federal courts have not adequately addressed sexual harassment in the judiciary.

The leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee were critical of a working group report commissioned to examine how harassment claims are dealt with and to offer better ways to address them.

The federal judiciary has been forced to grapple with the issue since late last year, when The Washington Post reported on sexual misconduct allegations against prominent appeals court judge Alex Kozinski, who later resigned.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) opened a hearing on the issue Wednesday with a stern warning: “The judicial branch has a problem. They have to deal with it, or Congress will have to do it for the courts.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. ordered an initiative late last year to examine whether appropriate procedures were in place broadly to protect law clerks and other court employees.

James Duff, director of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, established a group to explore the issue, and it issued a report this month recommending changes to help ferret out wrongdoing.

While some clerks praised Duff’s work, Grassley was less than pleased with what he saw as only a vague acknowledgment of the scope of harassment in the judiciary and nonspecific proposals to fix the problem.

“After the Kozinski scandal and other allegations, it was a real chance to undertake reforms,” he said. “But in too many ways, this vague report kicks the can down the road.”

The report said that inappropriate conduct was “not limited to a few isolated instances,” though it offered no examples, and recommended revising written code and creating an office to help employees navigate the process of complaining about workplace malfeasance.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in her opening statement that she was troubled by some aspects of the report.

“I’m also concerned that the working group’s report didn’t quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment in the judiciary and instead relied on previous EEOC data,” said Feinstein, using an acronym for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Grassley said in an interview that the report seemed like a way to “create the appearance of caring” while leaving “employees of the judicial branch without a vehicle for reporting abuses.”

The Iowa Republican said he would like to see an independent watchdog for the judiciary that could take and investigate reports of harassment. While Congress could theoretically get involved with legislation, he said, that might be difficult to accomplish in practice.

Duff, who testified before the Judiciary panel Wednesday, defended the report and said he brought letters from judicial employee associations supporting it.

“We are very pleased with the reactions and support from those employees of the judicial branch, who are vitally important constituencies to whom the working group’s report was directed,” he said. “These letters reflect the fact that we listened and responded and they participated in the review.”

Grassley said the report made some “useful recommendations,” including requiring judges to report harassment.

Of Kozinski in particular, Grassley said in the interview: “It ought to be pretty offensive that people like that get pensions on the taxpayer’s dime, and their only reason for retirement is because they don’t want to be questioned about what they’re doing, or face the music.”

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