Judicial Council Eyes Revamp of Harassment Policies

The seal of the Judicial Council of California, the policymaking body of the California courts. (Photo the Judicial Council of California via YouTube)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – When the Judicial Council of California asked the courts for input on its statewide review of the judiciary’s sexual harassment policy, many of the responses expressed concern about how to report future misconduct.  

“A number of the anonymous comments that we received included the concern, if not complaint, that people didn’t know who to report to – especially if the allegation involved a presiding judge or justice,” said council member Justice Harry Hull on Friday. “This is a critical issue we’re working hard to make sure is clarified.”

At its Friday business meeting, the council got its first update on the work of a group of judges appointed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in 2018 to study discrimination and harassment prevention, as well as a report from San Joaquin County on a local drug court success story.

For a judiciary that has seen its fair share of fallout from the #MeToo movement, the council made a point last year of immediately adopting a new rule requiring courts to disclose all financial settlements of misconduct claims against judges using taxpayer money. 

Around this time, the release of 64 heavily redacted pages of records revealed the judiciary had spent more than $600,000 since 2012 to settle sexual harassment and gender discrimination claims, including a $150,000 payment to a female employee of the Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Jose.

The documents also revealed the Tulare County Superior Court paid former clerk Priscilla Tovar $120,000 in 2016 to settle her lawsuit against former judge Valeriano Saucedo in which she said he pressed her into an affair.

The Commission on Judicial Performance is currently investigating claims against appellate court Justice Jeffrey Johnson, accused of groping and harassing Justice Victoria Chaney over an eight-year period. The commission’s 19-page report also notes accusations of public intoxication and inappropriate comments made to lawyers, law clerks, and a California Highway Patrol officer. 

Johnson was a well-regarded member of the council’s court facilities committee and was chair of its courthouse construction cost-reduction sub-committee. While Johnson is still listed as a committee member on the council’s website, a spokesman said in January that he will not be attending meetings of either committee “until this matter is resolved.”

Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie of Sacramento, who chairs the sexual harassment workgroup, said Friday  they will likely recommend a new rule of court that would address how courts can adopt reporting procedures, promote a standard branch-wide response to complaints, and provide training for court employees and judges.

The workgroup has looked to the federal judiciary, which released its own system this week for handling complaints of workplace harassment as part of its review, with Justice Margaret McKeown of the Ninth Circuit recently phoning into one of its meetings.

Boulware Eurie said one issue discussed by the group at length was how to deal with complaints without encroaching on local court control.

“Large courts, small courts and courts of appeal already have in many respects guidelines and procedures about who to respond to,” she said. “But as we all know there are situations where employees might feel uncomfortable with going through that chain of command.” 

She added, “Particularly with our trial courts, it is not the function of the council to set forth for them what their local practices are. So one of the things we have discussed is mindful of existing laws, we need to ensure that everyone is clear about the existing law, give guidance and figure out what works best for you.”

Boulware Eurie said the council can expect some final recommendations from the workgroup later this year.

Turning to more cheery matters, the council also heard from Judge Richard Vlavianos of San Joaquin County, whose court received a $2 million grant to fund its community supervision project. Vlavianos told the council the project has been widely successful in reducing recidivism among high-risk drug and DUI offenders.

“It’s kind of a redesign of the justice system to get more actively engaged on the supervision side,” Vlavianos said.

The program uses substance abuse counselors as case managers employed by the court. Clients enter the program and are screened, assessed for need and referred to resources like mental health treatment and cognitive behavior therapy.

“We redesigned our system so that everyone who has a violation of parole or community supervision comes to my calendar. We can do the screening and assessment and this is the center of all of it,” Vlavianos said. “I look at it as court emergency triage. You have this person and they had these injuries that are causing their behavior which needs to stop. You are going to screen, assess, refer, and then the nice part about being the court is that you can use leverage. Doctors don’t have as much leverage as judges do in terms to try and make sure people follow through with their behavior. Overall the model has been really successful.”

The project had 1,342 participants in 2017-18 and has spent roughly $480 per participant, Vlavianos said, attributing its success to its focus on accountability and the support of other agencies like local law enforcement. 

“You are literally changing a mindset by bringing in the court, and holding the line on accountability you are changing the mindset flowing over beyond that,” he said. “If we change the way we do business on the supervision side and work with agencies we really have a pretty large effect.”

Latrice Woodruff, a former drug court client, said it was the support of the court that helped her overcome her addiction when she entered the program in 2010.

“When I got to drug court I was broken and defeated and I came with seven pending cases. Those cases could’ve sent me to prison had I not completed drug court,” Woodruff told the council.

“My judge was Judge Vlavianos, we called him ‘Judge V.’ He showered me with love and support and guidance and the resources I needed to successfully complete drug court.”

Woodruff is now a case manager with the court, having obtained her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She is currently studying for master’s degree in human behavior. 

“I am very grateful for drug court because without them there is no telling where I would be,” she said. “I know drug court works because I’m a product of drug court. I self-disclose to my clients that I am a drug court client because I want them to know they are able to do what I’ve done.”

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