I have never before considered myself to be naïve, but perhaps naiveté is the reason that I have found myself so surprised by the widespread allegations of sexual assault, sexual harassment and boorish behavior by powerful, well-known men. As the #MeToo movement has made clear, millions of women are not surprised, as they have dealt with this terrible behavior for many years and struggled with its enormous impact on their lives.
Yes, I knew that women could be victimized by men. Both my mother and my aunt had been professional women during a much less enlightened time, a time when it was "a man's world," and they had described enduring many difficult situations with unpleasant and unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior. I heard similar stories from the first woman to be president of NYSBA, my dear friend Maryann Saccomando Freedman. But I will admit that it has been jarring for me to face the reality of just how prevalent the problem is.
Furthermore, it is deeply distressing to me that laws to prevent sexual harassment have not been effective in inhibiting such conduct - not even within our justice system. After 15 women told their stories of sexual misconduct by Alex Kozinski, a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. formed a working group to examine harassment in the federal judiciary. In a report issued in June, the group, which interviewed scores of current and former judiciary employees, found that inappropriate conduct was "not limited to a few isolated instances" and recommended sweeping changes to address wrongdoing.
Judge Kozinski has stepped down from the bench. He did apologize, saying that he "had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike" and that, "in doing so, I may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace." With all due respect to Judge Kozinski, that's just not good enough.
It is important to note that sexual harassment and sexual assault are not partisan issues, and bad behavior can be found across the political spectrum. It was nearly a quarter century ago that Anita Hill spoke out about harassing behavior by a man who was nominated (and later confirmed) to serve on our nation's highest court. While skepticism and caution were appropriate when Hill testified about the matter before a Congressional committee, she faced grueling questions and unduly harsh treatment from both Democrats and Republicans.
I feel great compassion for Ashley Judd, Anne Heche, Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman and other prominent women who have spoken out about being victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. I also can't help but think about the plight of women working in low-paying service jobs with supervisors who make unwanted or inappropriate advances or demands and have the power to retaliate against them if they don't acquiesce. In all likelihood, these women have more tenuous support systems and fewer financial resources to fall back on.
Ultimately, it is clear to me that all of us need to stand up for women - and men - whenever we see harassment or abuse occurring. It is not enough to say that sexual harassment is wrong; all of us must confront the abusers, and all of us must have the courage to refuse to accept such behavior. This is not a "women's issue." It is an issue for every one of us.
As attorneys and State Bar Association members, we have an even greater responsibility here. We must use our knowledge and experience to identify areas where improvement is needed and highlight ways to nurture and support gender equity in our profession and in our society.
Here is just one example of how we can do that: Last November, NYSBA's House of Delegates approved a report that found that women attorneys remain considerably underrepresented in courtrooms across the state as well as in alternative dispute resolution (ADR). The report found that female attorneys comprise just 25 percent of attorneys in lead counsel roles in courtrooms statewide. It encourages law firms, members of the judiciary, corporate clients, and alternative dispute resolution providers to provide women lawyers with opportunities to gain trial experience, participate in the courtroom and in all aspects of litigation, and be selected as neutrals in ADR. The report's findings were affirmed by the American Bar Association. I am committed to working during the coming year to address the report's findings and to identify ways to increase opportunities for female attorneys.
At the same time, I find that I am concerned by the tendency in the current environment to assume guilt whenever there is an allegation or even a rumor of sexual abuse or harassment. Adherence to the basic principle of our criminal jurisprudence, the presumption of innocence, is tested with each new accusation, especially when the men either admit to the conduct or deny it but resign from powerful jobs or withdraw from public life.
Women must be supported and encouraged when they are brave enough to come forward with accusations. But we must also be vigilant to preserve basic concepts of due process. If we fail to do so, we will be doing grievous harm in the name of justice.
If I was naïve about this issue in the past, I am no longer. I hope that you will join me, both in working to stop sexual harassment and abuse when we see it, and in helping to ensure that, as we do so, we uphold the basic tenets of our justice system.