Courts' Task Force Urges Education

Courts' Task Force Urges Education

Pamela Cravez

"Courts' Task Force Urges Education" by Pamela Cravez. Alaska Justice Forum 13(3): 4-5 (Fall 1996). The Joint State-Federal Courts Gender Equality Task Force reports on its three-year investigation into gender bias in Alaska state and federal courts, finding that sex-related bias affects not only litigants, witnesses, lawyers, employees, and judges with regard to process, but also with regard to the substantial outcome of cases.

In nearly all aspects of Alaska's state and federal court systems women are more likely than men to experience and perceive gender bias. Men, too, however, perceive sex-related bias, particularly in domestic violence and domestic relations cases.

The Joint State-Federal Courts Gender Equality Task Force, co-chaired by Federal District Court Chief Judge James Singleton and Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karen Hunt, reported the findings of its three-year investigation of gender fairness in Alaska courts in autumn 1996. The task force recommended that courts emphasize education and asked that judges, state and federal court staff, and bar members receive materials about gender fairness.

The findings, based on statewide surveys and subcommittee evaluations, mirrored those of other task forces across the country: women, more than men, experience and perceive gender bias. Alaska's task force received reports of gender-biased differential treatment between attorneys and between attorneys or judges and other persons in the courtroom, including jurors, witnesses, security personnel and other court staff. Gender bias appeared obvious to some and nonexistent to others.

Comments from women on the surveys indicate that biased behavior took the form of sexist humor; the practice of informally addressing women by their first names and men by their surnames; actions based upon sex-related stereotypes; and the use of gender- biased language. Women also reported a lack of job opportunities based on merit, favoring of male attorneys both within and outside the courtroom, and economic and other disparities in the treatment of women in civil and domestic litigation.

Although the task force received reports of gender-biased behavior within Alaska's courtrooms, biased interactions between attorneys outside the courtroom were reported more frequently.

The task force defined gender bias as any unjustified differential treatment of a woman or a man based on the individual's gender, including but not limited to such areas as language, humor, manners or etiquette, conditions of employment, and sexual harassment.

The Alaska report comes in response to the Final Report of the Ninth Circuit Gender Bias Task Force, which was published in 1993. The Ninth Circuit - which includes Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming - relied on surveys, focus groups, and a combination of legal research methods. This investigation found that gender not only affected litigants, witnesses, lawyers, employees and judges with regard to process, but also, according to their studies, with regard to the substantive outcome of cases.

Although much of the gender bias documented in the Ninth Circuit occurred beyond formal proceedings of court, the report still found the role of the judiciary to be very important in addressing gender bias. The Ninth Circuit called upon its individual districts to work to change the behaviors and attitudes which allow gender to affect people within the circuit.

In January 1992, Chief Judge H. Russel Holland of the U.S. District Court for Alaska and Chief Justice Jay Rabinowitz of the Alaska Supreme Court established the Gender Bias Work Group in response to the Ninth Circuit's preliminary findings. In 1993, Chief Justice Daniel A. Moore, Jr. and Chief Judge Holland replaced this work group with the Joint State-Federal Courts Gender Equality Task Force, calling upon the task force to conduct an extensive investigation into the effects of gender in Alaska's legal system.

Although many states throughout the country have undertaken gender studies, Alaska is the only state to conduct a simultaneous inquiry into both its state and federal systems. The breadth of this study necessitated an unprecedented level of cooperation between state and federal agencies, demonstrating the importance state and federal courts place on eliminating gender bias in Alaska's legal system. In some cases, particularly among the wide assortment of federal organizations in Alaska, the study of gender issues provided the first cooperative exchange of ideas. For others, the process of examining gender issues permitted peers and co-workers to share ideas that, until now, they had not had an opportunity to voice. More than one hundred lawyers, judges and citizens throughout Alaska were involved with the inquiry. Across the board, participants in the investigation found that the process of inquiry in itself raised the level of awareness in Alaska's courts regarding gender issues.

The task force began by conducting statewide surveys of the legal profession. These findings were reported in an earlier Alaska Justice Forum article, "Gender Equality in the Courts: A Preliminary Look" (11(3), Fall 1994, available on the Justice Center's web site at The task force then formed subcommittees to investigate gender fairness issues and propose recommendations in four separate areas: Anchorage state courts, federal courts, the legal profession and public users of the state and federal courts.

The Anchorage State Courts Subcommittee, Federal Courts Subcommittee and the Public User Subcommittee decided to conduct further surveys to help clarify issues. The Legal Profession Subcommittee relied upon the surveys already conducted and reports from other jurisdictions. All subcommittee members also relied upon their own experiences.

Subcommittee Findings and Recommendations

Anchorage State Court Subcommittee. The Anchorage State Court Subcommittee, after surveying attorneys, judges, guardians ad litem, court-appointed special advocates, legal assistants and in-court clerks, concluded that some gender bias existed in Anchorage courtrooms. It recommended increased education and awareness for all participants in the court system from jurors to judges and promoting the use of gender neutral language. It also urged further study of how gender might affect civil litigation, domestic cases, and variations in criminal sentences.

Federal Courts Subcommittee. The Federal Courts Subcommittee sent out two surveys, one to attorneys and another to non-attorneys. It received responses from nearly three hundred attorneys and fewer than one hundred non-attorneys, including personnel in the military, public service agencies, law enforcement entities and the judiciary. Both surveys found women more than men reporting bias. The subcommittee concluded that gender bias existed throughout the legal profession and occurred occasionally in federal courts. It recommended local court rules promoting gender fairness; training in gender issues; on- going study; and policies and procedures supporting gender fairness in the federal system.

Legal Profession Subcommittee. The Legal Profession Subcommittee found Alaskans experienced many of the same problems that attorneys in other states report. These problems included excluding women or minimizing their role, unequal compensation, gender-biased language, and a lack of arenas for discussing gender issues and remedies. The subcommittee recommended conducting seminars for law firms; publicizing gender fairness issues and progress; promoting gender neutral language; and conducting yearly surveys to track progress.

Public User Subcommittee. More than three hundred people from throughout the state responded to the Public User Subcommittee survey. The subcommittee analyzed four areas regarding gender fairness: criminal cases, domestic violence, divorce and custody, and general dissatisfaction with the system. Although survey results showed little bias in criminal cases, the personal experience of subcommittee members indicated otherwise. The subcommittee found disparities in charging and sentencing. The subcommittee also found that both men and women perceived gender bias for the wide range of domestic relations cases, including domestic violence, divorce and custody. (While people dissatisfied with the outcome of their cases perceived the greatest amount of gender bias, the subcommittee did not give as much weight to this finding since people often blame legal losses on a number of factors, including gender.)

The subcommittee recommended collecting more data in criminal cases; reviewing domestic violence case procedures; encouraging gender neutral communication; encouraging alternate dispute resolution; involving parties in the divorce and custody decision-making process to a greater degree; and training in female/male communication.

Task Force Recommendations

The overall task force recognized two important aspects in the subcommittee process. First, just the gathering of people from diverse backgrounds to discuss gender issues and investigate how they might be addressed caused a shift in the understanding of gender in Alaska's legal system. Second, subcommittee recommendations, although encompassing a broad range of options, all tended to include the key components of education and monitoring of progress. Recognizing the positive subcommittee work, the task force began supporting statewide workshops and seminars on gender equality even before the issuance of its final report.

The task force adopted six general recommendations:

1. Provide gender equality education and materials to private law firms, state and federal court personnel, and the judiciary. The task force recommended the development of training seminars and materials on ethics and gender for people involved with the courts. Materials should include a pamphlet about gender issues which would complement the existing state court leaflet and could be used by those newly admitted to the bar, jurors, witnesses, litigants, and other participants in court proceedings.

2. Revise and update Women's Legal Rights Handbook. The former Alaska Women's Commission wrote the original version of this handbook, which was last revised in 1990.

3. Publicize information on gender issues and progress toward equality.

4. Adopt state and federal court rules and a state bar ethics rule that prohibit gender discrimination.

5. Integrate gender bias education into all relevant substantive and procedural courses offered by the Alaska Bar Association and the state and federal court systems.

6. Maintain an on-going group that can systematically monitor gender bias and implement recommendations. The task force recommended that state and federal courts continue to support the work of this group, or if needed, create another group to continue the work. It further recommended that the state and local bar associations and state and federal courts continue to sponsor and implement specific programs to end gender bias.

On-Going Task Force Work

Following publication of its final report the task force received authorization from the Joint State-Federal Judicial Council to begin implementing its recommendations. The task force will continue to meet on a quarterly basis. Its initial projects include updating the women's Legal Rights Handbook, developing seminars for the legal profession, and publicizing gender fairness issues and progress.

Pamela Cravez is an attorney and served as the reporter for the task force.