A bipartisan group of lawmakers questioned on Thursday the effectiveness of the federal court system’s safeguards against workplace misconduct, saying in a letter that the recent public reprimand of a federal judge in Kansas for sexual harassment had documented “very troubling” behavior.
The letter, signed by four members of the House Judiciary Committee, praised recent moves to address judicial misconduct. But the lawmakers said they were still concerned about protecting more than 30,000 federal court employees from misconduct.
In 2017, as the #MeToo movement swept across the country, and after a high-profile federal judge in California resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said that the federal court system had to do more to protect employees from sexual harassment. The judiciary in March 2019 strengthened provisions about inappropriate behavior in its code of conduct.
In September, court officials issued a rare public reprimand of Judge Carlos Murguia, of the United States District Court in Kansas City, Kan., saying that he made sexually suggestive comments and sent inappropriate text messages to female judiciary employees. He continued to harass the employees even after one of them told him to stop, according to the order from the Tenth Circuit Judicial Council.
Judge Murguia admitted to the misconduct and apologized.
The order did not make public crucial pieces of information, like when the complaint against Judge Murguia was filed, when the misconduct occurred or what “corrective actions” had been taken in response to the council’s findings. Officials said those details were confidential.
The lawmakers’ letter asked federal court officials when or if more details about Judge Murguia’s misconduct would be disclosed and what policies had been put into place to prevent it from happening again, among other questions.
“Secrecy enables workplace harassment and undermines the integrity of the judiciary,” the lawmakers said in the letter. “Partial transparency, however, is never enough. We hope there will be a frank examination of the adequacy of the steps taken to address what the Tenth Circuit has documented as Judge Murguia’s misconduct and what further actions are needed to ensure that the judicial branch provides a safe workplace for all of its employees.”
Lawmakers plan to hold a hearing next week on the court system’s protections against harassment, discrimination and other types of misconduct.
Judge Murguia could not immediately be reached for comment.
A judiciary spokesman said Thursday that the Tenth Circuit’s September decision “is not the final step in the process.”
The letter was signed by four representatives: Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and chairman of the committee; Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia; Jim Sensenbrenner, Republican of Wisconsin; and Mary Gay Scanlon, Democrat of Pennsylvania. It was sent to a top court official in Washington and to judges in Kansas and the Tenth Circuit.
“No one should experience harassment, discrimination, or other misconduct in any workplace—and especially not in our federal courts, where so many Americans expect to turn for justice,” Mr. Nadler said in a statement.
The letter provided a glimpse into how society’s broader reckoning with sexual harassment has been playing out behind the scenes of the federal court system, a body known for its opacity and unusual power dynamics — federal judges serve for life and can be removed only through an impeachment process.
The issue received widespread public attention in 2017, after a high-profile federal court judge in California, Alex Kozinski, said he would retire after multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. He had served on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit for three decades.
More than a dozen women had accused him of subjecting them to unwanted sexual comments or physical contact, according to The Washington Post. The allegations against Mr. Kozinski spanned decades and included colleagues as well as women who met him at events.
Brooke D. Coleman, a law professor at the Seattle University School of Law who has studied judicial procedure, called the lawmakers’ letter a “big step” that could lead to further reform of the court system’s rules. She said even after previous reforms, the court system is not transparent about misconduct claims.
“I think they’re ostensibly interested in this individual case and whether it was handled correctly,” she said of the letter’s signatories. “But I think they’re looking broader. I think they’re thinking more broadly about what should be different about the way the judiciary handles these kinds of claims.”
Still, she said it was important to not let Congress exert undue influence on judges.
“I think allowing, to the extent you can, the judiciary to regulate itself, I think that’s important in the interest of judicial independence,” she said.
Published at Thu, 06 Feb 2020 12:19:00 +0000