More than 30 years since the release of a landmark report detailing pervasive discrimination against women in New York courts, an Office of Court Administration committee of judges and attorneys tapped to address bias issues is conducting a new survey to get a comprehensive look at gender fairness in the courts.
Starting this month, the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts will administer an online survey to a random sample of attorneys to see what progress has been made in eliminating gender bias in the courts and if there is more work to be done, according to a release from the OCA.
When conducting its survey on bias in the courts more than three decades ago, the task force that eventually gave rise to the women’s committee focused its energies on assessing the treatment of women litigants, attorneys and court employees.
This time, the committee will focus on facility issues that affect female attorneys, such as making accommodations for lactation; and sexual harassment, said committee chairwoman Betty Weinberg Ellerin, a retired state Supreme Court justice who served on the Appellate Division, First Department and who is now senior counsel at Alston & Bird.
Over the past year, since the #MeToo movement has led to the ouster of powerful people in a wide array of institutions, sexual harassment and abuse has become a top priority in many workplaces.
New York’s court system has not seen the kind of high-profile exits that have shaken up Hollywood and Washington, D.C., though as the Law Journal reported earlier this month, the court system, with more than 16,000 employees, has not gone without its own allegations of sexual misconduct.
Since the task force conducted its work in the mid-1980s, society has reframed its views of what is considered inappropriate behavior in the workplace.
“The fact is that in many instances the same kind of conduct maybe existed in the 80s,” Ellerin said.
The women’s committee is building off of work started by a task force created in 1984 at the behest of Sol Wachtler, then the chief judge of the state Court of Appeals, to study how women are treated in the courts—as employees, judges, attorneys and litigants—and launched a 22-month investigation into the matter.
When the task force handed over its report in 1986, the picture it painted for what women endured in the court system was a dark one: bias against women was rampant, the report states, and women disproportionately faced a “climate of condescension, indifference and hostility.”
At the time, physical abuse was cited as the reason for divorces granted in almost 40 percent of cases, the report states. Yet some Family Court judges on the bench back then seemed underinformed about domestic violence. It was not uncommon for victims to be blamed for provoking attacks against them, and not to be believed that they were being abused unless their injuries were visible.
As for female attorneys, while their numbers were growing in the mid-1980s, with some reporting significant improvements in the way they’re treated, there was a “widespread perception” that judges, male attorneys and court employees did not treat female attorneys with the same dignity as their male counterparts.
The most commonly cited examples of inappropriate conduct toward female attorneys were being subjected to being addressed in familiar terms, comments about their appearance or sexual advances, according to the task force report.
“While we have come a long way in eliminating gender bias in the courts since the release of the task force’s seminal report, our work is not yet finished,” said Chief Judge Janet DiFiore in the news release. “We must continue, through study, education and reform, to open the doors of opportunity and tear down barriers to justice.”