Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. said Monday that recent efforts to combat workplace harassment in federal courthouses around the country are strengthening “our culture of accountability and professionalism,” but more needs to be done to foster the “exemplary workplace that we all want.”
Writing in his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, Roberts said, “the job is not finished until we have done all that we can to ensure that all of our employees are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.”
It was the second annual report in which Roberts discussed the need for the judiciary to take steps to end sexual harassment in the workplace and to make it easier for court employees to report improper conduct without running afoul of strict confidentiality rules. “These concerns warrant serious attention from all quarters of the judicial branch,” Roberts wrote in his 2017 report.
For the first time, Roberts on Monday included the Supreme Court itself in making changes in this area. “The Supreme Court will supplement its existing internal policies and training programs for all of its employees based on the initiatives and experience of the other federal courts,” Roberts wrote.
The chief justice’s push to deal with the problem was triggered by #MeToo reports in late 2017 that Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit had inappropriate interactions with numerous female law clerks and invoked confidentiality rules to discourage them from reporting misconduct. Kozinski quickly retired, avoiding further investigation of his conduct. He has since returned to the Ninth Circuit, as a private lawyer representing a client.
Roberts made no mention of allegations of sexual misconduct directed at Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing. Kavanaugh avoided judicial ethics sanctions because Supreme Court justices are not covered by the relevant federal law.
A working group created to study the problem throughout the judiciary found that it was “not limited to a few isolated instances.” In his report Monday, Roberts said, “The working group concluded that misconduct, when it does occur, is more likely to take the form of incivility or disrespect than overt sexual harassment, and it frequently goes unreported.”
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts moved relatively quickly to develop reforms, including the recent hiring of a “judicial integrity officer.” Several circuit and district courts have developed their own policies to deal with reporting misconduct.
As usual with his annual reports, Roberts began with a history lesson, this time noting that it is the hundredth anniversary of Congress providing funding for federal courts to hire assistants and law clerks. He described the relationship between judges and their clerks as “one of close association, candid intellectual exchange, and confidentiality.”
But, Roberts continued, “Recent events have highlighted that the very qualities that make the position of law clerk attractive—particularly, the opportunity to work with a senior member of the legal profession in a position of mentorship and trust—can create special risks of abuse.”
Roberts also praised staff members of the judiciary for providing emergency aid in the wake of floods in Florida, North Carolina and the Northern Mariana Islands, the earthquake in Alaska, and wildfires in Northern California. “The judiciary is fortunate to have so many caring and generous judges and employees who quietly and selflessly work to support the public good,” he wrote.
Roberts made no other defense of the federal judiciary along the lines of what he said in November in response to President Donald Trump’s disparagement of the Ninth Circuit and an “Obama judge” who ruled against Trump’s policies.
“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said at the time in a statement issued by the court. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”
Read the full report from Chief Justice John Roberts: