#Metoo and South Carolina Courts

As the #MeToo movement continues to expose sexual abuse and sexual harassment, where do women turn to find justice?

The courts. Ironically, the court system is one of the few places that itself seems to be immune to allegations of sexual misconduct.

Larry Nassar, former physician for the USA Gymnastics team, was recently found guilty of sexually abusing young women and girls under his care and sentenced to almost 200 years in prison.

Legendary comedian and TV star Bill Cosby is expected to go to court this year to face retrial on charges of sexual assault.

Prosecutors in California are considering filing charges against Harvey Weinstein, the movie mogul who has been accused by dozens of women of sexual harassment and assault.

Scores of other men – from lawmakers to high-profile media personalities – have been accused of sexual misconduct and may eventually have to answer to the charges before a judge.

But, do the judges that they appear before have their own sexual misconduct issues?

Judges Don’t Like to Judge Each Other

Judges don’t seem as willing to acknowledge the same conduct when it involves accusations against other judges. A CNN report, for example, has found that the federal judiciary goes to great lengths to hide from the public any allegations of sexual misconduct made against judges.

More than 1,000 complaints are made each year, but none are made public according to the report. The complaints are rarely investigated thoroughly, and judges are rarely disciplined. Even if they are “disciplined,” good luck finding any details about the action taken against them – those kinds of details are never laid out before the public.

There have been some exceptions. Sexual misconduct allegations against Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski became very public, and he resigned in December in the face of complaints from several law clerks and staffers.

Where is There a Greater Power Imbalance Than in a Judge’s Chambers?

The #MeToo movement has highlighted the fact that the men being called out for sexual misconduct often have one thing in common – tremendous power over the women who are accusing them.

Judges have exactly that kind of power – the law clerks and staff members who serve them are often intimidated by their position, and they are all too aware that a judge can easily scuttle their career plans.

Similarly, attorneys may bite their tongue and accept some degree of sexual harassment from judges as a necessary evil – a judicial complaint may become “he said, she said,” and who is going to win that argument?

That power imbalance makes it terrifying for law clerks or attorneys to go public with allegations of sexual misconduct by judges. Knowing that allegations are likely to be dismissed and kept secret, coupled with the potential repercussions of reporting, means that there is even less incentive to make a complaint.

Consider that the courts’ reluctance to acknowledge allegations against their own also raises questions about judges’ ability to provide justice in any sexual abuse case. If they do not think other judges should be punished for sexual misconduct, they may not think anyone in a position of power should be held accountable.

Criminal Defense Lawyer in Columbia, Lexington, and Myrtle Beach, SC

As a criminal defense lawyer who appears regularly in Horry County and Richland County courtrooms, I don’t ever want to feel like I must make a choice between 1) remaining silent in the face of judicial misconduct or 2) making an allegation against a judge who, along with his or her friends on the bench, will be deciding the fate of my clients.

What’s the answer?

The judiciary, SC Supreme Court, Court Administration, or whoever is in charge of this sort of thing needs to ensure that there is a procedure for reporting sexual harassment, that judicial staff or attorneys will not be retaliated against, that the procedure is transparent, and that judicial staff and SC attorneys are familiar with it.

Judges should not be granted “unofficial immunity.” In theory, no one is above the law, but in the real world, judges are often exempt from the norms and laws that apply to the rest of us.

 

 

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