By Margot Brooks • February 06, 2016•Writers in Residence, Issues
Charged with the task of interpreting the law, the judicial branch of our government is bestowed great authority. Given the power assigned to judges, we would like to believe they possess the requisite knowledge and moral discernment to carry out their duties in alignment with our conception of justice. When it comes to matters of sexual and domestic violence, how much faith can we have in our officials’ expertise and ability to adjudicate fairly? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be rather little.
Take the example of Judge Timothy Dooley, a superior court judge in Nome, Alaska. Dooley was cited last year for violations of the state’s judicial conduct code based on inappropriate statements made in court. One violation happened at a sentencing hearing, where Dooley spoke to a man convicted of sexually assaulting a teenaged girl: “From what I’ve read, this was not someone who was — I hate to use the phrase ‘asking for it.’ There are girls out there who seem to be temptresses, and this does not appear to be anything like that.”[i] Another came during the trial phase of a domestic violence case: when a juror had trouble hearing the soft-spoken victim, Dooley said, “I’m sorry, folks, but I can’t slap her around to make her talk louder.[ii]” Dooley initially denied any wrongdoing, but later admitted the impropriety of his conduct during a disciplinary hearing by the Alaska Committee of Judicial Conduct. “I probably caused grief for some victim, perhaps,[iii]” Dooley said in his apology, where he does not seem to take full accountability for the effects of his words. The committee suggested public censure, supervision by a mentor judge, and sensitivity training on domestic violence; the matter is now before the Alaska Supreme Court, which will determine the ultimate outcome[iv].
Similar stories of what is to me outrageous behavior on the part of judges are all too common, and “causing grief for some victim” may be the least of the harms. Judges’ misinformed, callous attitudes can leave victims wary of the legal system, feeling that they will not be believed, understood, or treated with respect and dignity. One consequence of this is that victims may elect to drop charges or cease pursuing a restraining order because it seems easier than facing the condescension of those who are supposed to serve in their aid, and they will be far less inclined to utilize the justice system in the future. A more grave result is that of additional violence that may befall victims who do not receive the protection they need due to judges’ shortsightedness. One of many examples is the story of Dorene Seidl, who in 2008 was denied a Domestic Violence Order against her husband Gerry Seidl. Despite a documented history of abuse and testimony that would indicate otherwise, the judge deemed there to be insufficient evidence to grant the order.[v] The next day, Seidl’s husband purchased a gun, which he used to shoot and kill her two days later while she was collecting her belongings from their home.[vi] If Seidl had received the DVO, her husband would have been prevented from buying a firearm, and she would have been able to receive the protection of a police escort when returning to get her things.
Lack of education on sexual and domestic violence is cited as the chief culprit for the mishandling of related cases by judges. It is likely, or at least hoped, that most judges do not intend to be crass when speaking in court or to bring about results like those in the Seidl case when providing their rulings, but without proper exposure to the sociocultural and psychological dynamics of abuse and assault, good intentions do not go far. For this reason, it is essential that judges receive training in these areas. So, what’s being done on this front? One major initiative comes from the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Enacted in 1994, VAWA is composed of various legislative measures that aims to reduce the incidence of acts of domestic and sexual violence and augment the justice system’s capacity to handle them, as well as to enhance services and support available to victims, spread awareness, and challenge traditional cultural attitudes that impede progress.[vii] A primary avenue for this challenge is the use of grant provisions that allocate funds to state, local, and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations, and universities for the institution of various programs advancing these efforts.
One such endeavor, initially called the Court Training and Improvements program, pertains to training for judges and court personnel in both state and federal courts on issues related to sexual and domestic violence. During VAWA’s most recent reauthorization in 2013, the program was consolidated with others to create the Grants to Support Families in the Justice System program.[viii] The overhead legislation is conveyed in the United States Code Service, 42 USCS Section 10420(b)(3), which relays that a grant may be used to “educate court-based and court-related personnel [et. al.]...on the dynamics of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, including information on perpetrator behavior, evidence-based risk factors for domestic and dating violence homicide, and on issues relating to the needs of victims, including safety, security, privacy, and confidentiality, including cases in which the victim proceeds pro se.”[ix]
The relevant provisions for state and tribal governments are detailed in 42 UCSC Sections 13991 and 13992. The latter expands upon the range of issues to be incorporated into training, which include but are hardly limited to the following: “the historical evolution of laws and attitudes on rape and sexual assault;” “the physical, psychological, and economic impact of rape and sexual assault on the victim, the costs to society, and the implications for sentencing;” “the psychology and self-presentation of batterers and victims and the implications for court proceedings and credibility of witnesses;” and “the legitimate reasons why victims of domestic violence or dating violence may refuse to testify against a defendant.”[x] The related provisions for the federal court system are outlined in 42 USCS § § 14001 and 14002.
These legislative efforts are certainly laudable, but to what end? Though some states now mandate that judges who oversee matters of sexual and domestic violence receive basic training, in many states all educational programs of this purpose are strictly voluntary. This is problematic, as numbers show that we are failing to fully capitalize on these opportunities to improve: a recent opinion piece on a the website of a nonprofit organization that details Connecticut’s current affairs revealed that since 2007, only five of the state’s nearly three hundred judges have completed the training program offered by the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Violence, which is funded through VAWA grants.[xi] Unfortunately, this is simply insufficient, and until judges participate in such programs in greater numbers, it is likely we will continue to encounter stories where a judge’s unrefined attitude or simple ignorance results in impropriety like that displayed by Judge Dooley, or worse, a tragedy as in the Seidl case.
[ix] 42 UCSC § 1042.
[x] 42 USCS § 13992.