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Ban on Courthouse Romance Proposed to Stem Judiciary Harassment

Oct. 30, 2018, 8:12 PM

Banning romantic relationships between judges and courthouse employees, including clerks, should be considered to take the pressure off sex harassment victims and reduce the chances of misconduct, a legal scholar proposed Oct. 30.

Renee Knake, a University of Houston law professor focusing on professional responsibility, testified at a hearing where judges and other academics grappled with how to improve rules concerning federal courthouse harassment.

All professions have experienced their own #MeToo “reckoning,” and the judiciary is no exception, Knake said.

In fact, Knake’s decision not to pursue a federal clerkship was influenced partly by a warning that a certain judge had a reputation for harassment, she testified.

No one should have to endure sexual harassment as a right of passage, she said.

Judiciary’s Response

The hearing in Washington stemmed from the judiciary’s response to harassment allegations last year that forced Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit from the bench.

At least 15 women, including some former law clerks, accused him of groping them, showing them pornography, or making off-color comments. Kozinski resigned immediately after Chief Judge Sidney Thomas filed a complaint against him over the alleged misconduct.

The hearing highlighted proposed changes to the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges and the Rules for Judicial-Conduct and Judicial-Disability Proceedings.

The proposals drafted by a working group formed after the Kozinski scandal broke would include making clear that judges shouldn’t engage in harassment of court personnel or retaliate for the reporting of such misconduct.

Some Discretion

Courts should have some measure of local discretion when it comes to dealing with harassment, Chief Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California testified.

He recounted two cases in which he said allegations of harassment were dealt with quickly by his personal intervention.

In one case, a judge accused of making a lewd remark to a clerk immediately resigned, O’Neill said. In another, a judge accused of being a “complete jerk” agreed to voluntary counseling for a domestic problem, from which she said her offensive behavior stemmed.

The proposed changes came down staunchly in favor of requiring more disclosure, imposing an affirmative obligation for members of the judiciary to step up and report misconduct, Judge Sarah Evans Barker of the Southern District of Indiana, who serves on the federal Judicial Conduct and Disability Committee, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick L. Gregory in Washington at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com