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Harvard Law Student Group Cheers Changes to Federal Court's Sexual Harassment Policies

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A Harvard Law School student group focused on ending harassment and discrimination in the legal profession praised the D.C. Circuit Court for its recent adoption of workplace conduct policies in a statement Thursday.

The student group, the Pipeline Parity Project, has been advocating for policy changes that address workplace misconduct in the court system since its founding in April.

The court's policy changes institute a workplace environmental climate survey, appoint workplace relations coordinators, and create an employee advisory group.

Organization member and second-year Law student Sejal Singh praised the new policies as a “powerful step forward” in a written statement.

“[O]f 1,300 misconduct claims filed under the JC&D rules in 2016, not a single one was filed by law clerks,” Singh wrote. “The Judiciary’s zero percent reporting rate highlights the judiciary’s inadequate system for handling complaints of harassment and clerks’ acute fear of retaliation should they come forward.”

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"JC&D" refers to "judicial conduct & disability."

D.C. Court Chief Judges Merrick B. Garland ’74 and Beryl A. Howell wrote in a statement that "ensuring a workplace free of sexual harassment and other misconduct, including retaliation for reporting harassment and misconduct, is of the highest priority in the D.C. Circuit.”

Members of the Pipeline Parity Project and other law students have been advocating for such changes for several months.

In August, a group of Harvard and Yale law students sent a memo to the Judicial Conference of the United States — the policy-making body for U.S. federal courts — urging the conference to a “adopt reforms regarding the role and responsibilities of law schools in reporting and responding to complaints of harassment and other abusive workplace practices.”

That memo came in response to recommendations put forward by the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, a committee formed following reports that former Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski sexually harassed several of his clerks and employees. Kozinski, who stepped down in the wake of the allegations, has said he never intended to make his clerks uncomfortable.

In October, members of the Pipeline Parity Project penned an open letter to the Judicial Conference calling for three policies they believed were missing from the working group’s recommendations: a climate survey, an informal reporting structure, and a centralized office to receive reports. Hundreds of students from law schools across the country signed the letter. Pipeline Parity Project members also sent recommendations to the Judicial Conference earlier this month.

Second-year Law student and Pipeline Parity Project member Emma R. Janger said in an interview Thursday that the group set out at its founding to organize in response to Kozinski’s alleged sexual harassment of clerks.

“One of the absolutely founding sort of impetuses for Pipeline was the allegations that came out against Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski,” Janger said. “One of the reasons Pipeline was founded was in response . . . the fact that as much as the allegations sent shockwaves, by many important players in the legal profession, Kozinski’s harassment was viewed as an open secret.”

The changes to the D.C. Circuit also come after the contentious confirmation of Brett M. Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Kavanaugh, who previously served as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, has been accused of sexual assault by at least two women — one who alleges Kavanaugh assaulted her when both were in high school, and one who says Kavanaugh assaulted her while they were in college.

The conservative justice taught at the Law School for almost a decade. The Pipeline Parity Project organized protests at the Law School against Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings and called on administrators to bar him from teaching. The Law School later announced that the embattled judge indicated he would not return to teach his class in January.

The Pipeline Parity Project has also spoken out against mandatory arbitration agreements at law firms. The group recently focused its efforts on pressing the world’s highest grossing firm — Kirkland & Ellis — to eliminate these contract provisions, which prevent employees from pursuing workplace complaints in court. The firm announced last week it was dropping the agreements after weeks of pressure from the student group.

Going forward, group members hope other courts will adopt policies like the D.C. Circuit's new protocols.

“Right now, we’re calling on every other circuit to at least match this plan,” Janger said. “If they want to take it further, if they want to implement even stronger policies, that’s great — but this should be the benchmark going forward for all other eleven circuits across the country.”

—Staff writer Aidan F. Ryan can be reached at aidan.ryan@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @AidanRyanNH.

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