Ex-judiciary employees describe harassment, discrimination to U.S. House panel

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Caitlyn Clark, a former law clerk to U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal in Georgia, testifies before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on March 17, 2022. U.S. House of Representatives/Handout via REUTERS

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  • Judge's former law clerk testifies she was fired for being pregnant
  • Congress considering bill to extend rights to judiciary employees

(Reuters) - Three women on Thursday told a U.S. House of Representatives panel they experienced or witnessed harassment and discrimination while working in the federal judiciary, including a former clerk who said a judge fired her because she was pregnant.

They told a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee that the judiciary's internal system for handling misconduct complaints was flawed, highlighting the need for statutory workplace protections for its 30,000 employees.

"The current protections failed me," said Caitlyn Clark, a former law clerk who said U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal in Macon, Georgia, fired her after she disclosed her second pregnancy. "I do not want them to fail others."

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Royal did not respond to requests for comment.

She and the other ex-employees painted a picture of a flawed process in which misconduct complaints against judges and others are reviewed by other judges who have little incentive to rule in their favor.

Court employees lack the same protections afforded to private sector and other federal workers under civil rights laws like Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the panel expressed support for changing that.

"If a federal judge assaults someone, they need to be held accountable," said Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California.

The judiciary, though, opposes the Judiciary Accountability Act, legislation pending in the House and Senate that would extend such rights. Ninth U.S. Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown told the committee reforms the judiciary adopted are having a "positive effect" and more improvements are coming.

In her testimony, Clark said that after revealing her pregnancy in January 2020, Royal's career law clerk began belittling her writing, and the judge told her: "While clerking may be a good ‘mommy job,’ work still has to be done.'" She was fired 10 days before giving birth.

Clark said she was forced to pursue a formal complaint through a "broken" system in which her claims were heard by another judge in Royal's court, who found she failed to establish her claim.

An appeal was rejected on Thursday before the hearing began, she said.

Laura Minor, a former equal employment opportunity officer for the judiciary's administrative office, told the committee she was "sadly not surprised," saying other employees left after experiencing misconduct.

Caryn Devins Strickland, a former federal public defender in North Carolina, said after she complained that a superior sexually harassed her, she was "stonewalled at every turn, as judiciary officials protected the perpetrators and punished me."

Strickland said she had no choice but to quit. She is now suing to challenge the judiciary's process for reviewing misconduct complaints.

Read more:

Congress to hear from woman suing over judiciary's harassment policies

Federal judiciary group recommends reforms to address workplace misconduct

4th Circ. leery of challenge to federal courts' sex harassment policies

Federal judiciary defends internal sexual harassment review process

Fed court workers say judiciary mishandles bias, harassment complaints

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.