Calif. Judges’ Sexual Harassment, Bias Settlements Secret No More (1)

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By Joyce E. Cutler

Sexual harassment and discrimination settlements involving California judges and judicial employees who use public funds will be made public under a rule set to take effect June 1.

The Judicial Council of California, the rulemaking arm of the state’s courts, unanimously approved the rule change May 24. Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakayue pushed in April for the courts to respond to the nationwide spotlight on sexual harassment and discrimination in all industries.

“I think we’re looking at this rule change, without all the little details and nuance, it’s simply the right thing to do,” Jake Chatters, Placer County Superior Court executive director, told other council members.

The rule change ends the ambiguity of whether settlement agreements, including sexual and racial harassment and discrimination, will be publicly available.

“As a matter of law and public policy, it should be clear that publicly funded settlement agreements involving complaints against judicial officers, including agreements in cases involving claims or complaints of sexual harassment or discrimination, must be disclosed to the public on request,” the judicial working group’s report to the full council said.

The clarification is “so important for us, for public trust and confidence in the judiciary,” Cantil-Sakayue told the council meeting.

The vote comes one week after the California Supreme Court approved new Professional Rules of Conduct, making lawyers in the state responsible for passive harassment or discrimination.

Shining Light

Judges already have an obligation to report other judges’ ethical lapses, Judge Daniel Buckley of the Los Angeles Superior Court told the council. The public should know that judges also are subject to discipline by the independent state Commission on Judicial Performance that investigates and makes recommendations to the California Supreme Court.

Any settlement agreement “for which public funds were spent in payment of the settlement, including any settlement agreement arising from claims or complaints of sexual harassment or sexual discrimination” must be disclosed, according to the new rule.

Judicial officers’ names may not be redacted, although names of complainants and witnesses, and any other information that would identify them, can be, the rule said.

“Frankly, and first, it is the law. It is complying with the law. The broad approach reflects California’s general public policy on access to public records,” said Judge Marsha G. Slough of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, who led the council’s working group on the rule change.

“Judiciary relies on the trust and the confidence of the public it serves and the public has the right to know how the judiciary spends the public’s funds,” Slough said.

The issue “is one of national interest and frankly, it should be of personal interest for all of us,” Slough said.

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