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Gender inequities continue to exist in state courts: survey

Judicial Committee responds with recommendations

November 25, 2020 Editorial Staff

A recent survey conducted by the New York State Judicial Committee on Women in the Courts indicates that while the treatment of female attorneys, litigants and witnesses in the courts has improved markedly over the years, the findings still reveal a notable gap between the perceptions of men and women.

The online poll, which updates a survey and other research conducted in the 1980s by the New York Task Force on Women in the Courts, focused on several key areas, including: whether and how gender affects courtroom interactions; the courthouse environment (sexual harassment); the treatment of domestic violence, rape and prostitution cases; the adequacy and enforcement of child support awards; the selection of female attorneys for fee-generating appointments; and the adequacy of children’s centers, lactation and other courthouse facilities in addressing the basic needs of litigants and witnesses.

The Committee, chaired by the Hon. Betty Weinberg Ellerin, worked with experts to develop and distribute the survey. Invitations to participate in the survey were sent on behalf of Chief Judge Janet DiFiore to a large, random sample of attorneys admitted to practice law in New York state, including judges and court personnel. More than 5,300 attorneys responded, a much larger number than the 1,790 who responded to the 1980s survey.

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Among the survey findings:

  • Evidence of improvement since the earlier survey was clear in many key areas. While not specifically covered in the survey questions, one area of great progress is the number of women judges now on the bench, with significant improvement in the number of women administrative judges and appellate court judges.
  • In response to questions regarding inappropriate conduct within the courthouse,10 percent of female survey participants reported that unwelcome physical contact by other attorneys occurred very often or often, and another 36 percent reported it sometimes happened; male respondents also reported this occurring, though to a lesser extent. Among court personnel, both male and female respondents reported this occurring to a lesser degree: five percent of female respondents said it occurred often/very often and 17 percent said it happened sometimes.
  • Both female and male survey respondents reported almost no problem when it came to female attorneys experiencing unwelcome physical contact by judges, with 90 percent of female respondents and 96 percent of male respondents reporting this rarely or never occurred.
  • Regarding the reporting of sexual harassment in all its forms, only 31 percent of female respondents and 49 percent of male respondents indicated they knew how, when and where to report a claim related to misconduct in a Unified Court System facility.
  • More than half of the female survey participants and 13 percent of the male survey participants agreed with the statement that male judges appear to give more credibility to the statements/arguments of male attorneys than female attorneys. There appeared to be less concern with female judges.
  • With regard to the handling of domestic violence cases, one area of concern that emerged for both family courts and criminal courts is the need for further safety provisions for alleged victims of domestic violence.
  • As to the treatment of prostitution cases, female survey respondents were likely to agree that judges (64 percent), prosecutors (56 percent) and law enforcement (65 percent) treat the patron, or “john,” with less severity than the sex worker.
  • Both female and male survey participants reported that the efficiency and effectiveness of court proceedings are negatively impacted by the lack of children’s centers, lactation spaces and baby-changing stations.

Based on these and other survey findings, the Committee has issued a series of recommendations. They include:

  • Effectively publicizing the court system’s procedure for filing sexual harassment and other types of complaints.
  • Mandating regular training for all judges and court personnel designed to make them aware of and recognize gender bias and how to take appropriate immediate action when such behavior appears or is reported.
  • Providing petitioners/complainants in domestic violence cases with a safe waiting area, separate and inaccessible from defendants.
  • Requiring comprehensive education and training for law enforcement officers, prosecutors, paralegals, investigators and intake staff on all aspects of domestic violence.
  • Routinely prosecuting patrons of prostitution as well as the traffickers and promoters.
  • Establishing Human Trafficking Intervention Courts throughout the state.
  • Ensuring that all law enforcement officers and policymakers receive the education and training on the dynamics of sexual assault.
  • Having court administrators and legislative leaders collaborate to establish free, accessible children’s centers in all courthouses statewide.
  • Having court administrators and municipalities work together to update courthouse bathrooms, provide baby changing stations in all bathrooms including women’s, men’s, gender neutral and family bathrooms.

“Though we have clearly come a long way in reducing gender bias in the courts, the survey findings show that substantial inequities continue to exist regarding the treatment of women litigants, witnesses and attorneys — including inappropriate or offensive conduct directed toward women by far too many members of the legal profession. These insights, and the thoughtful proposals offered by the Committee, will pave the way to further reforms,” said Chief Judge DiFiore.

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