Two recent graduates of Washington University School of Law have launched a nonprofit seeking to support judicial clerks, amid concerns about misconduct by lifetime-appointed judges.
The Legal Accountability Project is the brainchild of Aliza Shatzman and Matthew Goodman, who both graduated law school in 2019.
“These are enormously and chronically under-addressed issues,” said Shatzman, who became engaged on the topic when she says she experienced harassment while clerking in the DC Superior Court.
Shatzman submitted written testimony for a March 2022 House Judiciary hearing detailing her negative clerkship experience and the “enormous power disparity between Senate-confirmed judges and fresh-out-of-law-school clerks.”
The hearing was one of several in recent years looking at harassment endured by clerks and gaps in ethics rules for judges, including US Supreme Court justices. Several proposed legislative responses are in the works.
Shatzman said she and Goodman founded their organization with an eye toward recent grads who are about to enter into “extraordinarily dangerous” workplaces where they “do not enjoy basic workplace protections and where judges are rarely, if ever, held accountable.”
The launch also comes as CNN reported that US Supreme Court clerks, considered the legal field’s most elite new members, are being asked to turn over their personal cell phone records as the court investigates the unprecedented leak of a draft opinion in a major abortion case.
Although not the focus of her nonprofit, Shatzman said the Supreme Court investigation “highlights the enormous power disparity between judges and clerks,” where powerful judges can make-or-break a law clerk’s career.
“These folks work long hours, in stressful circumstances, behind locked doors, and judges face no oversight over their dealings with clerks,” she said.
Founders of the new nonprofit aim to support clerks through data collection and partnerships to “quantify the scope of harassment, discrimination, and diversity issues in the courts, and use the results of our research to craft effective solutions.”
Among its first projects will be a clerkship reporting database, in which former clerks can detail their positive and negative experiences within the judiciary.
Some law schools already have such databases, but the project intends to expand the opportunity beyond schools “with the institutional memory about misbehaving judges,” according to the project’s website.
The group intends set up a pilot program beginning in fall 2022 of five to 10 schools that span the range of law school rankings and geography.
“It’s a way to watch out for judges with a history of misconduct, but it’s also a way to highlight the good judges,” Shatzman said.