WASHINGTON -- The courts need to make it easier for federal judiciary employees to file sexual harassment and misconduct complaints, a court official told the Senate judiciary committee Wednesday during a hearing on the findings of a Supreme Court task force.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts established the working group to report on behavior in U.S. courts after nearly 700 women also wrote letters to him about their experiences with sexual harassment as law clerks. It also was a reaction to December complaints of sexual harassment against the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinsk.
The report found that the complaint reporting system within the courts is not widely used because of a lack of knowledge of how to do so, a complicated reporting process and fear of retaliation.
"The judiciary has a demonstrated history of dealing with misconduct very aggressively when we know about it and our system to handle complaints works when it's utilized, but it's not used," James C. Duff, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said at the hearing.
Duff said zero sexual harassment or workplace misconduct claims were filed in 2017 among the branch's 30,000 employees.
"That doesn't mean it didn't exist in our branch," Duff said. "The problem is that they were not reported."
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and John Kennedy of Louisiana asked Duff to confirm the accuracy of the report and the prevalence of sexual harassment. Duff said the report was accurate but couldn't answer how prevalent sexual harassment and misconduct is.
"It's not as prevalent as it is in other workplaces," he said. "It's too much, whatever it is."
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said the courts need to make employees feel protected if they file complaints.
"Half the battle for people is to know what they can complain about and creating an environment so that complaints can come forward," she said. "Any situation of unequal power can be a setting for sexual harassment to occur."
Duff said that based on the report's recommendations, the judiciary is going to expand the number of reporting options from two to four, including providing a "one-stop shop to get information" and a "hotline for employees for guidelines and intervention." Additionally, he said court officials will extend employee rights to cover interns and externs, expand the time limit for filing complaints from 30 to 180 days and establish an office of judicial integrity to field complaints.
"We are educating our workforce aggressively about the options they have to address the concerns and recognize that the judicial branch is not immune to workplace misconduct," he said.
Former district law clerk and Washington attorney Jamie A. Santos, helped spearhead the letter to Roberts that advocated for better protections for law clerks and detailed sexual harassment allegations.
Speaking to the committee, Santos advised more active oversight to ensure every federal circuit addresses how reports of harassment are going to be investigated and criticized the report for "entirely looking forward" without studying the previous allegations that led to the formation of the working group.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., also encouraged Duff to examine the behavior of current judges, which on "their face may not be a problem but can lead to a problem."