Courts Must Better Police Themselves on Harassment, Chief Justice Says

Judge Alex Kozinski of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit retired two weeks ago after 15 women accused him of sexual harassment.

WASHINGTON — Responding to the retirement of a prominent appeals court judge accused of sexual harassment, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the federal court system must do more to protect law clerks and other employees from abusive conduct.

“Events in recent months have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace,” the chief justice wrote in his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary, released Sunday, “and events in the past few weeks have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune.”

That was an unmistakable reference to the sudden retirement of Judge Alex Kozinski two weeks ago after The Washington Post reported that some 15 women had accused him of sexual harassment. Judge Kozinski had served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for more than three decades, establishing a reputation as a powerful and unpredictable intellect and a vivid writer.

The women, many of whom had served as his law clerks, said Judge Kozinski had touched them inappropriately, made unwanted sexual comments and forced them to view sexual materials on his computer.

In announcing his retirement, Judge Kozinski suggested that he had been misunderstood and apologized.

“I’ve always had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike,” he wrote. “In doing so, I may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace.”

Chief Justice Roberts said he had assembled a task force to examine whether the court system’s procedures for addressing inappropriate conduct were adequate. The young lawyers who serve as law clerks to judges, typically for a year soon after graduating from law school, may require special attention, he suggested, as they are meant to keep confidential what happens in their judge’s chambers.

“I expect the working group to consider whether changes are needed in our codes of conduct, our guidance to employees — including law clerks — on issues of confidentiality and reporting of instances of misconduct, our educational programs, and our rules for investigating and processing misconduct complaints,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

“These concerns warrant serious attention from all quarters of the judicial branch,” he added. “I have great confidence in the men and women who comprise our judiciary. I am sure that the overwhelming number have no tolerance for harassment and share the view that victims must have clear and immediate recourse to effective remedies.”

The remarks on sexual harassment were a brief coda, probably added late in the drafting process, to a report mostly devoted to the court system’s efforts to prepare for natural disasters.

“We cannot forget our fellow citizens in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who are continuing to recover from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and those in California who continue to confront historic wildfires and their smoldering consequences,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “The federal judiciary has an ongoing responsibility to prepare for catastrophes and ensure that the third branch of government remains open and functional during times of national emergency.”

Noting that a federal law requires federal courts to be “always open,” the chief justice wrote that “the judiciary must anticipate the broad range of calamities that might strike, ranging from severe weather to earthquakes, from cyberterrorism to on-the-ground terrorist attacks.”

The past year’s weather posed special challenges, he wrote.

“The hurricanes brought flooding, power outages, infrastructure damage and individual hardship to Texas and Florida,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “But the judicial districts of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were especially hard hit. Judges and court employees responded in dedicated and even heroic fashion.”

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