States examine sex bias in legal system

A new focus on the rights of women is emerging within the United States legal system. It is being prodded by several state studies -- most notably in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island -- which tend to substantiate charges of sex bias against women in the courts.

Judicial-sponsored task force reports in New York and New Jersey indicate that women involved in the legal system, whether as lawyers, court personnel, or litigants, suffer a variety of affronts, ranging from personal humiliation to the unequal meting out of fair and equitable court verdicts.

An extensive two-year study of the judicial system in New York, recently made public, singled out these areas of court mishandling of women or misunderstanding of their problems:

Rape and family violence. Surveys showed that male judges and court personnel do not understand the effects of these attacks on women and often blame the victims for it.

Divorce, child support, and property settlements. Many judges do not recognize a wife's contribution to a marriage. This results in inequitable divorce settlements. Courts also are often lax in enforcing child-support awards to women.

Rude and callous behavior toward women. This is common within the court system. Women lawyers and litigants are subjected to sexist and demeaning remarks and sometimes are not taken seriously by judges and judicial personnel.

Job bias. The road to employment and promotion for women lawyers and court personnel is often strewn with sexist obstacles. Despite US Supreme Court rulings outlawing gender bias in the workplace, many women say their sex is a barrier to important administrative appointments and participation as lawyers in major cases.

``If a woman doesn't feel that the court will treat her fairly, where else in society can she go?'' asks Boston lawyer Sandra Shapiro. Miss Shapiro is a partner in Foley, Hoag & Eliot, a law firm she says makes special efforts to give women key posts. But she adds that this is the exception, not the rule, for many firms.

Shapiro, recent past president of the Women's Bar Association of Massachusetts, is spearheading a drive to get her state to form a task force to study ``gender bias'' in its judicial system. She points out that although problems of sex discrimination seem to be common on a national basis, it is incumbent on each state to undertake its own reforms.

Lynn Hecht Schafran, a New York lawyer long involved in fighting institutional bias against women, agrees that reform is needed at both the state and national levels.

Ms. Schafran is director of the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts. Under the aegis of the National Organization for Women and the National Association of Women Judges, NJEP holds courses and seminars for judges and court personnel across the US to show how ``sexual stereotyping'' affects the court process and the administration of justice.

``Whether it is a divorce proceeding, a rape situation, or a question of job opportunities, the underlying issue is the systematic devaluation of women and what is seen as `women's work,' '' Schafran says.

Sex bias is not, however, indigenous to the system, she adds. ``It's often a lack of information or knowledge. I've heard judges say: `If I knew then [when I made a ruling] what I know now, I might have acted differently.' '' She is referring to the often unfair burdens women often bear in domestic violence and child-custody situations.

Interest in confronting gender bias is steadily growing, according to Shapiro and Schafran.

For instance, the National Association of Women Judges recently set up a task force to encourage state and local bar associations to take up the issue.

Wisconsin and Florida, along with Massachusetts, are moving toward establishing formal programs to combat sex discrimination in the courts. And lawyers' and judicial groups in more than 20 other states have opened discussions on the matter.

A presentation on this subject will be made in August at the joint annual meeting in Omaha, Neb., of the Conference of [State] Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators.

Law schools are also starting to look at the problem, through classroom discussions and professional research. The number of women law graduates and faculty members is steadily rising. Some observers believe this is spurring interest in the issue.

Prof. Nancy Erickson of Ohio State University Law School is completing a study, scheduled for fall publication in the Journal of Legal Education, which details bias in the portrayal of women in leading criminal-justice casebooks used by law students.

At Law Day ceremonies on May 1, New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, responding to the state Task Force Report on Women in the Courts, pledged to begin a broad-based program to combat sexism. It includes judicial education programs, a blueprint to upgrade recruiting and promoting women in the system, and a panel to monitor bias in the courtroom. Judge Wachtler stressed the need to ``sensitize'' fellow jurists to the ``vices of gender bias.''

Close observers say publicized studies of sex bias in the legal system will give states a strong push toward reform. In fact, a 1983 New Jersey Task Force Report on Women in the Courts -- the first of its kind -- has brought some changes and ``raised consciousness,'' says Lynn Schafran. She points out that this is seen in the breaking down of ``stereotyping'' in the system and even in some recent court decisions in domestic-violence cases.

``However, it must be seen that this is not a women's issue,'' stresses Sandra Shapiro. ``It will benefit the whole of society if this problem can be eradicated.''

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