By Lynn Hecht Schafran • February 22, 2008•Sexism, Sexual Harassment, and Other Forms of Discrimination
When news broke that Maryland Judge W. Kennedy Boone was reprimanded in January for calling three African-American women lawyers “the Supremes” and advising the defendant to “get an experienced male attorney,” people were dismayed. How could this still be happening? It’s one thing when Imus does it, but a judge.... Looked at through the lens of history, however, the Boone case is also a story of tremendous progress in addressing gender bias in the courts.
As Director of the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (NJEP) at Legal Momentum, I know that until recently the spectators in the courtroom where this happened would have laughed, the lawyers would not have felt able to complain, the judicial disciplinary board would not have reprimanded the judge and the judge would not have written a mea culpa or met with the three lawyers individually to personally apologize. When Legal Momentum inaugurated NJEP in l980 with the goal of eliminating gender bias in the courts, judicial comments like Judge Boone’s were nothing unusual. For example, when the New Jersey Supreme Court Task Force on Women in the Courts – the first of the supreme court task forces that emerged in response to NJEP’s judicial education programs – conducted its attorneys survey in the early eighties, one woman wrote that at a calendar call where she was the only woman in the courtroom, when she asked to be heard at second call because she had problems with her case, the judge responded that of course she had problems, “women are always the problem,” and everyone laughed.
Over the years NJEP and the gender bias task forces documented incidents like this across the country and explained that they were not just personally insulting to the women involved, but undermined their professional credibility and consequently their ability to represent their clients and their clients’ credibility. This led court systems nationwide to condemn this kind of behavior, and when the American Bar Association in l990 revised its Model Code of Judicial Conduct, the code on which state codes are based, it adopted a new Canon that directed judges not to manifest bias or prejudice on a list of grounds including sex, and not to permit those under their direction and control to do so. It was this canon, among others, that the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities ruled Judge Boone violated when he made his “undignified and disparaging”remarks.
The disciplining of Judge Boone in this case demonstrates that the norms for acceptable behavior toward women in the courts have changed. Obviously incidents like these still happen, but far less often, and when they do, the targets can do something about it.