Judiciary Under The #MeToo Microscope
By John D. Winer
The rise of the #MeToo movement has exposed the courts to renewed criticism about sexual harassment and workplace misconduct involving the judiciary. According to investigative reporting by the San Diego Union-Tribune, the administrative agency for California’s state court system shelled out more than $600,000 since 2011 to investigate or settle sexual harassment claims against judges and court employees. Nearly half of that money went to settle sexual harassment accusations against three unidentified judges.
These problems previously flew under the radar before #MeToo put the courts under the microscope for failing to address or prevent incidents of workplace sexual harassment. Examples of these incidents include a Tulare County Superior Court judge accused of having an improper relationship with a court clerk and lying about it. He was removed from the bench in 2015 by the Commission of Judicial Performance. Prior to that, judges in Orange County and Kern County faced disciplinary actions for having sex with court workers. Last year, a San Jose-based Court of Appeal Presiding Justice retired following allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination against women and minorities.
Even the decades-old sexual harassment claims against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are back in the national conversation, after a woman who accused Thomas of sexual harassment wrote an article calling for his impeachment. Angela Wright-Shannon made her case in the Huffington Post, describing how in 1991, while working as an editor at The Charlotte Observer, she was subpoenaed to testify at Thomas’ confirmation hearing.
At that time, then-Sen. Joe Biden had learned that Wright-Shannon had written an unpublished article about why she believed Anita Hill was telling the truth. Wright-Shannon described how she too experienced similar behavior by Thomas, who was her boss when he served as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the 1980s. Wright-Shannon claims Thomas pressured her to go on dates, made sexually inappropriate comments and inquired about her breast size.
Wright-Shannon along with three other African-American women, willing to join Anita Hill, were never allowed to testify about Thomas’ behavior, after members of the Senate confirmation committee pushed back. “We all were denied a voice. Professor Hill and I were maligned by Thomas supporters, on the Senate panel and in his personal circle, in an attempt to coerce us into silence. But I wasn’t afraid to speak then, and I’m not afraid to speak now,” wrote Wright-Shannon.
Her allegations picked up steam after a former New York Times editor, Jill Abramson, published an editorial in New York Magazine, which argues that Thomas committed perjury when he denied the sexual harassment claims against him. The cover story titled “The Case for Impeaching Clarence Thomas” revealed new accusations against the justice by Moira Smith, an attorney who claims that Thomas groped her during a party in 1999.
While the chances of the House impeaching Justice Thomas are slim to none, his critics believe this scrutiny is warranted because of his powerful position in the highest court in the land that influences women’s rights policies. #MeToo has reintroduced Anita Hill’s claims to a new generation as more women continue to come forward and demand a change in workplace culture that condones sexual harassment.
The judicial system is a bedrock of our democracy and we must demand impeccable behavior from judges who uphold law and order. As incidents of sexual misconduct within the courts are exposed, the public will have more confidence in our judicial system.