A group appointed by the chief justice to revise California court rules to shed light on sexual harassment settlements involving judges met for the first time in San Francisco on Thursday as its members race to finish their task by May 24.
The five-member group, composed of three judges and two attorneys, has less than six weeks to recommend amendments to Rule of Court 10.500 that would explicitly require courts to identify judicial officers who are part of settlement agreements resolving sexual harassment and sexual discrimination complaints.
The Judicial Council and individual courts have cited exemptions in the state’s public records rule in refusing to provide details about harassment claims against judges and any resulting payouts to victims.
Responding to a document request from The Recorder and other media outlets, the Judicial Council on March 23 reported that it had paid $600,000 since 2010 to investigate and settle five complaints against judges and court employees. Lawyers for the branch declined to identify the judges in or details of the complaints, citing Rule 10.500 exemptions and “complicated legal and ethical issues.”
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye announced Tuesday that she wants the rule of court amended so such records will be made public.
“The current rule does not make it clear enough that these records should be disclosed,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “Judicial independence relies in part on judicial accountability. The judiciary relies on the trust and confidence of the public it serves, and the public has a right to know how the judicial branch spends taxpayer funds.”
How the group will approach that directive, at least initially, is unclear.
The five members will meet behind closed doors until they issue recommended changes for public comment, said the group’s leader, Justice Marsha Slough of the Fourth District Court of Appeal. The revised language will then go to the council’s Rules and Projects Committee before it’s sent to the Judicial Council for final approval at its meetings on May 24 and May 25, she said.
“I can’t really get into any dialogue [from the first meeting],” Slough said, “but generally speaking, everyone involved understands the importance of the issue and is coming at it from an open and broad-minded perspective.”
The group plans to look at what other states and the federal courts are doing on issues related to judges and sexual harassment complaints. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. of the U.S. Supreme Court in December formed his own committee to study the “sufficiency of safeguards” meant to protect federal court employees from workplace misconduct.
The group’s formation followed the abrupt resignation of Alex Kozinski, the former chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit who law clerks accused of inappropriate behavior. The 26-member federal committee released its first set of recommended changes last month.
The California group is expected to meet again next week, Slough said. “It’s such a critical topic nationally and I’m pleased our chief is willing to take it on,” she said.