The following essay was written by Bianca Sierra Wolff, a lawyer and Strategic Partnerships Director at California ChangeLawyers.
The #MeToo movement has exposed the sexual violence perpetrated by men in positions of power on a national scale.
And the legal profession has not been immune from this reckoning as more and more survivors of sexual violence come forward and share their truths, including former judicial law clerks.
In the legal world, few people hold as much power as judges. Within their sacred chambers, judges are revered. The power differential is almost palpable. But as often happens with positions that hold great power, abuses are probable if left unchecked.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh is currently being accused by at least two women of sexual violence. And while these accusations deal with time periods before he became a judge, they come to light at a time when he is being considered for the highest court in our nation.
But this essay isn’t about Brett Kavanaugh. We already know the problem is more widespread than a single judge.
For instance, Kavanaugh’s mentor Alex Kozinksi, a powerful judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, recently resigned as numerous women stepped forward to report years of sexual abuse. His chambers were described as “hostile, demeaning, and persistently sexualized”. He showed female clerks pornography without their consent, propositioned them for sex, and even groped them.
So where do we go from here?
I’m a lawyer, so to me, the answer is simple: the burden to stop abuses of power from judges, particularly when those abuses result in sexual violence, rests on the shoulders of people like me — on lawyers.
Lawyers know how the Court system works. We know that “law clerk” is just a fancy name for a young, right-out-of-school lawyer. We know that our industry strongly encourages young people into clerkships because they are viewed as prestigious and necessary to obtain a successful legal career. But it’s also where they may experience harassment with no protections. Worse yet, many of us have heard the rumors, the whispers of abusive behavior and felt powerless or too afraid to speak out
I’m not the first lawyer to call for an end to abuses of power by judges and I shouldn’t be the last. Lawyers have many privileges, and one of them is knowing how to seek recourse for injustices committed. We need to start using that privilege. We need to advocate for structural reforms to protect judicial employees, like clerks, from predatory judges. Reforms should include creating a statutory civil cause of action for sexual harassment.
It’s time for lawyers to be vigilant. It’s time for lawyers to protect students and young attorneys. And it’s time for lawyers to speak out against abuses of power and hold everyone in our profession accountable, no matter how much power or prestige they hold.