Judges' code includes special admonition against sexual harassment
MIAMI -- A model code of conduct for state and local judges spells out, for the first time, that they are to avoid "sexual advances, requests for sexual favors" and other such unwelcome behavior.
Ethics and women's groups pushed for even more specific language, but said they welcome special recognition of a problem they say persists to a disturbing degree.
The rules, last revised in 1990, could be adopted Monday at the American Bar Association's meeting in Miami.
Women who complain about harassment by judges, the groups say, too often meet with indifference or hostility from the judges' colleagues and state commissions that are supposed to police judges' behavior.
"Why is this necessary? The things that go on are quite astounding," said Lynn Hecht Schafran, director of the National Judicial Education Program. The program is a collaboration of women judges and Legal Momentum, a women's rights group.
The code is not binding. But it long has served as a model that individual states use in adopting rules for disciplining their judges.
It covers a range of conduct, including ethical behavior for judicial candidates, when judges may accept gifts and in what instances they should disqualify themselves from hearing cases.
The draft that the ABA has prepared has been criticized on several fronts. One reason was a proposed change, since deleted, that would have weakened language on admonitions to judges to avoid not just actual impropriety but also the appearance of impropriety.
Some ethics experts also said the rules do not go far enough in reining in expense-paid trips for judges and their spouses to legal seminars.
The proposed rules generally track the ethics code adopted in September for federal judges. In the federal rules, such trips are permitted, but judges have to disclose them within 30 days and trip sponsors have to disclose where they get their money.
The rules also would allow candidates for elected judgeships to answer questionnaires from interest groups, but would prohibit candidates from making promises or pledges about how they would rule as judges on specific issues.
The ABA commission that prepared the revised code said it adopted the language on sexual harassment after hearing from witnesses who "were emphatic about the need to single out sexual harassment for special mention, given the nature, extent and history of the problem."
A judicial ethics group proposed a longer, more specific list of behavior that judges should avoid: "Sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, comments about physical attributes, repeated and unwanted attempts at a romantic relationship, sexual gestures, offensive or suggestive remarks, sexually explicit questions, improper touching, lewd and vulgar language, suggestive or explicit pictures or images, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwelcome, regardless of gender."
Schafran said the list was intended to provide clear guidance to judges.
Roughly 70 state judges have been disciplined publicly for sexual harassment since 1990, according to the American Judicature Society, a nonpartisan ethics group made up mainly of lawyers and judges. The ethics group drafted the more specific language.
Several cases in recent years have highlighted the need to emphasize sexual harassment in the code of conduct, Schafran said.
In a case from Illinois, a judicial clerk who was getting a divorce complained that the judge she worked for offered to buy her a vibrator and spoke to her in sexually explicit terms, according to federal court records. A more senior judge eventually told her she should considering resigning.
The clerk, Melissa Robinson, eventually lost her federal employment discrimination case against Macon County, Ill., and Judge Warren Sappington, although federal judges acknowledged that she was subjected to unwelcome attention.
In Nebraska, court reporter Debbie Keslar sued District Court Judge Bryce Bartu for sexual harassment that included inappropriate touching and invitations for her to sit on his lap and visit his hotel room at a convention.
The state commission on judicial qualifications failed to take prompt action against Bartu, and had not acted on earlier complaints against him, Schafran said. The Nebraska Supreme Court policy against harassment had never been applied to a judge's conduct prior to Keslar's complaint.
The federal lawsuit was settled before it went to trial.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)