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Though the role of women in the courts has increased markedly in the last 15 years, there are still glaring inequalities, such as the lack of women judges outside of New York City, according to a new report by the New York State Committee on Women in the Courts. In the 4th Judicial District, which includes Essex, Franklin, Hamilton and eight other counties northeast of Albany, there was not a single woman elected to the 14 state supreme court judgeships from 1998 through 2001. In Albany’s 3rd Judicial District, the only woman currently elected to supreme court, Karen K. Peters, is now a justice of the Appellate Division, 3rd Department, and no longer handles supreme court cases. And in the 9th District, which includes Westchester, Dutchess and Orange counties, only three of the 32 active supreme court justices are women. Manhattan’s 1st District, by comparison, has nearly achieved parity: 20 of the district’s 48 supreme court justices — or 42 percent — are women. Still, that percentage has remained stagnant since 1998. Meanwhile, in the 12th District in the Bronx, the number of women justices increased from 15 percent to 27 percent — the largest increase in the state. Today, eight of the 30 elected supreme court justices in the Bronx are women. The report, titled “Women in the Courts: A Work in Progress,” compiles data as well as responses to 4,000 questionnaires sent to judges, law school deans, lawyers and advocacy groups. It comes 15 years after a task force created by former Chief Judge Lawrence H. Cooke found wide-ranging inequalities among men and women in the courts. Respondents attributed the slow and inconsistent gains for women in the judiciary to various causes: too few qualified women candidates running for judgeships, public perception that judges should be men, and parochialism. Political parties were dealt a lot of blame, too. As one unidentified male town justice put it, “As long as nominations for judgeships are controlled by political parties where male bonding occurs, only men or mostly men are selected.” Appellate Division, 1st Department, Justice Betty Weinberg Ellerin, who chairs the committee, said although women have made a lot of progress as lawyers, judges and litigants, many improvements are still needed, “particularly in relation to litigants, domestic violence and ending marriages.” Ellerin said that interim counsel fees in divorce proceedings are a chief concern. Without them, she said, less-monied spouses — still predominantly women — are at a disadvantage and can be forced to sign unfavorable settlements. To combat the high cost of divorce in New York and ensure quality representation, the committee recommends legislation that would make interim counsel fees mandatory in matrimonial cases. The committee also recommends legislation that would integrate family court jurisdiction into a superior or supreme court and increase the rate of pay for attorneys who are appointed in family court matters. Those fees have not been increased in 16 years. TREATMENT IN COURTS Some of the committee’s more intriguing findings centered on the treatment of women in courts, or at least the perception of how they are treated. One in five respondents — all men — said that despite the task force’s findings of 15 years ago, they believe women have never been treated differently from men in court. The report said some of those respondents were judges and bar association leaders. An equal number of respondents — including both men and women — said women have historically been treated less well than men in courts, but added there had been improvements, even “marked” and “dramatic” ones. But as one woman attorney in New York City said, “Some older members of the bar and bench still seem to have difficulty accepting the fact that a woman, especially an attractive woman, can be a capable attorney, jurist, etc.” One town justice said, “The ‘old boys’ network/attitude still exists, but substantially diminished over the past 15 years.” The report said that “virtually all” respondents called attention to the “transformation of the justice system’s treatment of domestic violence,” including greater protection and respect for victims and increased seriousness in handling abuse cases. Many problems still remain, respondents said, including judges who pressure domestic violence victims to settle cases and express doubts about a woman’s claims, while viewing batterers as “calm and cooperative.”

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