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Chief Justice Roberts announces sexual harassment moves, touts disaster response in year-end report

Posted at 5:16 PM, Dec 31, 2017

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts announced in an annual report on Sunday that he has called for an evaluation of how the judicial branch handles allegations of sexual harassment.

In his year-end report on the state of the judiciary, Roberts said recent events "have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace" and made clear that the "judicial branch is not immune."

"The judiciary will begin 2018 by undertaking a careful evaluation of whether its standards of conduct and its procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior are adequate to ensure an exemplary workplace for every judge and every court employee," Roberts wrote.

The announcement comes after Judge Alex Kozinski of the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals announced his retirement earlier this month after a Washington Post story detailed accusations of sexual misconduct from several former clerks and junior staffers. The article included the account of a former clerk who said Kozinski made her look at pornographic images and asked whether they sexually aroused her.

Without getting into specifics, Kozinski apologized for his actions in a statement released by his lawyer, but also defended what he called his "broad sense of humor."

"I've always had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike," Kozinski wrote. "In doing so, I may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace. It grieves me to learn that I caused any of my clerks to feel uncomfortable; this was never my intent."

Roberts, who as chief justice also heads the Judicial Conference, the national policy-making body of the federal courts, said he has asked the director of the Administrative Office of the US Courts to assemble a working group to examine whether changes are needed in the judiciary's "standards of conduct" and its "procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior." The goal is to "ensure an exemplary workplace for every judge and every court employee," he wrote, adding that the review would include an evaluation of whether codes of conduct that often require strict confidentiality on the part of law clerks need to be updated to ensure that misconduct is reported.

"I have great confidence in the men and women who comprise our judiciary," Roberts wrote. "I am sure that the overwhelming number have no tolerance for harassment and share the view that victims must have clear and immediate recourse to effective remedies."

Roberts' annual reports focus on issues he believes should receive the public's attention, including praise, for example, for lower court judges or emphasizing issues such as budget cuts and recusal rules. In this year's report, he commended the judiciary for its response to a series of natural disasters this year.

During the holidays, "we cannot forget our fellow citizens" in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and California" who are recovering from hurricanes and fires. He said the courts "must stand ready to perform their judicial functions" and that while "court emergency preparedness is not headline news, even on a slow news day," it's important to assure the public that the courts are doing their part.

Roberts highlighted instances in which court personnel were faced with having to deal with natural disasters, noting that judicial emergency response personnel helped find missing court employees and secure buildings after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.