Welcome to Reuters Legal News beta. Please enjoy and provide us with your feedback as we continue to improve the Reuters Legal News experience.

Skip to main content
Skip to floating mini video

Fed court workers say judiciary mishandles bias, harassment complaints

4 minute read

REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
  • Court employees say they routinely faced harassment and discrimination
  • But avenues for complaining are opaque and expose workers to retaliation
  • Workers backing bid to revive constitutional claims by former employee of public defender's office

The company and law firm names shown above are generated automatically based on the text of the article. We are improving this feature as we continue to test and develop in beta. We welcome feedback, which you can provide using the feedback tab on the right of the page.

(Reuters) - More than two dozen current and former employees of the federal judiciary told a U.S. appeals court on Thursday that their workplaces were rife with discrimination, harassment and bullying, but the "insulated" court system has largely failed to police itself.

The employees, represented by Keker Van Nest & Peters, in an amicus brief filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the judiciary’s current reporting procedures leave employees without real remedies and vulnerable to retaliation, while the court system's immunity from lawsuits means they lack basic workplace protections.

The workers are backing a former research attorney for a federal public defender's office, "Jane Roe," who is seeking to revive a lawsuit claiming the judiciary's lack of effective reporting protocols violated her due-process and equal-protection rights.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

"Employees of the judiciary ... deserve a reporting and disciplinary process that is fair, unbiased, and which provides meaningful redress, reflecting best practices that are standard in other fields — including the rest of the legal industry," lawyers wrote in Thursday's brief.

The workers who signed onto the brief include current and former federal public defenders, law clerks, and employees of the Administrative Office of the Courts who say they were subject to and witnessed various types of unlawful conduct.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School who represents Roe, declined to comment on the briefs. The Judicial Conference of the United States, which is the defendant in Roe's case, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Roe in her 2020 lawsuit in North Carolina federal court claimed the first assistant public defender in her office sexually harassed her, including constantly "shadowing" her and implying that she would be promoted if they had sex.

Roe claimed she was forced to quit after the first assistant and her supervisors retaliated against her for complaining about his conduct.

U.S. District Judge William Young in January said Roe had failed to back up her claims that the judiciary's lack of meaningful procedures for handling her complaints violated her constitutional rights.

Young also said the individual defendants named in Roe's lawsuit, including the director and general counsel of the Administrative Office of the Courts, had governmental immunity.

The judiciary employees in Thursday's amicus brief said the incidents alleged by Roe were not unique to her case. The workers said they either suffered or witnessed harassment and retaliation based on sex, race and sexual orientation.

One law clerk said her male colleague told interns to "act more like Monica Lewinsky" and later bragged about becoming "handsy" with one of them; another claimed a prominent appeals court judge routinely remarked on her appearance and told her what to wear to work.

The amici also included two women who publicly accused former 9th Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski and late 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt of harassment. Kozinski resigned in 2017 but denied the claims.

Many employees choose not to complain because they fear retaliation, according to the brief, and those who have were met with dispute resolution procedures that were opaque, lacking in confidentiality and impartiality, and offered limited remedies.

Prominent law professors Erwin Chemerinsky of Berkeley Law School and Aziz Huq of the University of Chicago Law School also filed a brief on Thursday backing Roe, as did 45 advocacy groups led by the National Women's Law Center and the Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund.

The case is Roe v. United States of America, 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 21-1346.

For Roe: Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School; Cooper Strickland

For the Judicial Conference: Gill Beck and Amanda Mundell of the U.S. Department of Justice

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

More from Reuters