What should we expect when Justices Alito and Kagan testify before Congress this week?

Political theater, to be sure — but of the potentially useful variety.

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan will reportedly testify before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on financial services and general government on March 7, to discuss the Court’s annual budget request. It will be the first public hearing on the Court’s budget since 2015; over the last several years, Justices have met privately with Congressional leaders.

The tradition of federal judges (including Supreme Court Justices) testifying before Congress dates back at least to the 1920s, when then-Chief Justice Taft and selected colleagues repeatedly appeared before Congress to discuss pending legislation affecting the courts. But that was in an era before television cameras and Twitter. The purpose and meaning of such hearings has long changed, and the presence of Justices, sans robes, at the witness table is sufficiently unusual these days as to attract quite a bit of attention.

Even though the scheduled testimony is technically about the Court’s budget, everyone seems to understand that financial minutiae will only be a small part of the discussion. Subcommittee members are likely to use the rare opportunity for direct interaction with the Justices to broach a variety of unrelated subjects, including an ethics code for the Supreme Court, the introduction of courtroom cameras, and the federal court system’s new workplace conduct policies.

The hearing itself is unlikely to break any new ground. The Justices have a strong tradition of circling the wagons on their internal matters, and Justice Kagan in particular has a smooth temperament that helps her avoid stepping into controversy. (She did manage to effectively wrangle the Harvard Law faculty for several years, after all.) Alito and Kagan both understand the nature of the production, as well as the ultimate goal: to get out unscathed.

To the extent Congress and the courts need to coordinate on important issues, one can only hope that they are doing so behind the scenes. The courts have been understandably cautious about communicating directly with Congress on matters of legal interpretation, given separation of powers concerns. But administrative issues are a different animal altogether, and there is ample space for the courts to work with Congress on funding and operational issues which are of important interest to both branches.

Still, while Thursday’s hearing may not produce much that is immediately newsworthy, it is still an important exercise. The Supreme Court has been famously reticent to align many of its practices with modern public expectations, from failing to adopt an ethics code to rejecting calls for courtroom cameras. Congressional hearings put the Justices on the spot to justify the Court’s positions in a public forum, thereby forcing the Court to periodically reconsider whether its existing practices help or harm its public legitimacy.

Neither the Supreme Court nor the federal court system should allow itself to be bullied by Congress or public demand, but there is still room for continuous improvement. The occasional public hearing can be a useful pressure point to bring that improvement to fruition.

 

 

Federal courts appoint first Judicial Integrity Officer

Back in January of this year, Chief Justice John Roberts appointed a Workplace Conduct Working Group in response to several public allegations of workplace harassment within the court system. The Working Group made its recommendations in June. Now, the court system had followed up on one of the most significant recommendations by appointing a Judicial Integrity Officer: Jill Langley, formerly the Director of Workplace Relations for the Tenth Circuit.

According to the press release:

One of Langley’s first responsibilities will be to set up a new office that will serve as an independent source of information and referral. This will include answering individuals’ questions, providing guidance on conflict resolution, mediation, and formal complaint options.

The new Judicial Integrity Office also will track and monitor data and any recurring workplace issues to identify trends and conduct systemic analyses and reviews. In addition, Langley will provide training throughout the Judiciary and serve as a resource for workplace conduct staff throughout the court system, including coordination with the Ninth Circuit’s director of workplace relations, the D.C. Circuit’s workplace relations coordinators, and other similar positions in the courts.

 

Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on federal court workplace harassment

Last week, Senator Charles Grassley promised to hold a hearing on the federal courts’ response to workplace harassment, which culminated in a working group report. The Washington Post reports on that hearing here.

From the story:

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, said in her opening statement that she was troubled by some aspects of the report.

“I’m also concerned that the working group’s report didn’t quantify the prevalence of sexual harassment in the judiciary and instead relied on previous EEOC data,” said Feinstein, using an acronym for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Grassley said in an interview that the report seemed like a way to “create the appearance of caring” while leaving “employees of the judicial branch without a vehicle for reporting abuses.”

The Iowa Republican said he would like to see an independent watchdog for the judiciary that could take and investigate reports of harassment. While Congress could theoretically get involved with legislation, he said, that might be difficult to accomplish in practice.

Grassley seeks hearing on federal courts’ approach to handling sexual harrassment

This week, the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group released its report and recommendations, which covered a range of workplace conduct including sexual harassment.

Senator Chuck Grassley is not impressed with the final report, stating that “The report lacked very serious proposals and, in a sense, just kind of kicked the can down the road.” He wants Congressional hearings on the matter.

Stay tuned.

Federal courts announce recommendations for workplace changes

The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, formed in the aftermath of the Alex Kozinski scandal, has issued its report and recommendations.

From the press release:

The recommendations include clarifying workplace standards and communications about how employees can raise formal complaints, removing barriers to reporting complaints, providing additional and less formal avenues for employees to seek expert advice and assistance on workplace conduct issues, and utilizing enhanced training on these subjects for judges and employees.

Several recommendations of the Working Group have already been implemented or are underway, such as clarifying that confidentiality rules in the Judiciary do not prevent law clerks or employees from reporting misconduct by judges. Many of the report’s recommendations require further action by the Judicial Conference.

The entire report can be found here.

California judiciary readies new sexual harassment guidelines

In the wake of the federal court system’s formation of a working group to address sexual harassment in the judiciary, the California courts have formed their own working group to address the same issue. Among other things, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye is pushing for a change to the current court rules that would require public disclosure of settlements for sexual harassment claims involving judges. Proposed new rules should be unveiled in the next few weeks.

Federal Judiciary Working Group on Workplace Conduct solicits employee input

The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, formed earlier this year in response to the #MeToo movement and specific allegations against Judge Alex Kozinski, has begun collecting data and reviewing existing policies. The Working Group is also soliciting input from federal court clerks and employees. Comments will be received until March 21, 2018.

More information here.