In the two years since the #MeToo movement exploded and the year since Christine Blasey Ford made her allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, speaking out about sexual assault and harassment has not become easier for victims, one of Ford’s lawyers said.
“It still requires an enormous amount of courage to come forward, whether you’re doing it on a very public stage like Dr. Ford or even privately in your own workplace,’’ said attorney Lisa Banks. “Because what we have always seen and what we continue to see is retaliation, backlash, threats, and intimidation against women who stand up and accuse powerful men of sexual misconduct.”
What has changed, though, is the world’s receptivity to such stories, as women are increasingly being heard.
Witness the action Banks and her law partner, Debra Katz, spurred in recent weeks for the women who blew the whistle on shortlived New England Patriot Antonio Brown and longtime tenor Plácido Domingo.
“I do believe that the movement has done a great deal to educate companies, employers, etc., about how corrosive it is to ignore these kind of credible allegations because the person is perceived to be a high wage earner, mission critical, too important to fail,” said Katz. “People are being held accountable and that’s a good thing.”
On Thursday, Banks and Katz will receive “leadership awards” for their pro bono work for Ford during last year’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing proceeding Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The awards will be presented at the annual fund-raiser of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston, which provides free legal representation to help victims of rape and sexual assault to rebuild their lives.
The lawyers, partners at Katz, Marshall & Banks in Washington, D.C., worked behind the scenes with Ford to negotiate the terms of her appearance before the committee and to prepare her for her testimony. A newly published book, “She Said,” by the New York Times reporters whose story about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein launched the #MeToo movement, reveals how hesitant Ford was to come forward and how gently the lawyers guided her.
“We always told Christine that whatever she decided, we would support her and if she decided to go forward we would fight like hell for her. But if she decided that she couldn’t, we respected that,” said Katz. “So, it was a roller-coaster ride. But ultimately, it was just a portrait of courage that she did get herself from someone who felt like she could never, ever do this, to someone who for four hours testified under oath, and answered every question that was asked of her and did it without rancor, and did it honestly and with respect for the process.”
Banks said she believed that Ford made a difference by “standing up in front of the world and sharing that information and being so brave and courageous.”
“[Kavanaugh] may be sitting on the Supreme Court, and maybe that was a foregone conclusion, but it was still an important moment for our society in terms of having that conversation about what is and is not acceptable,” she said.
In the two years since Weinstein was accused of serial sexual harassment and sexual misconduct — a case in which they also were involved, representing The Weinstein Company whistle-blower Irwin Reiter — Banks and Katz have handled a litany of cases, from a billionaire philanthropist accused of leveraging donations for sex, to a congressman harassing an aide he called his “soul mate.”
The vibrancy of the #MeToo movement has not dulled, Katz said, pointing to the actions taken by the Metropolitan Opera and the NFL on cases involving two of her firm’s clients just last week.
The NFL launched an investigation into Brown after a female artist told Sports Illustrated that Brown behaved sexually inappropriately when he hired her to paint a mural in his home — and sent threatening messages with photos of her children on a group text to her and his friends after she reported it. That followed another woman’s lawsuit, filed a day after Brown was signed by the New England Patriots, accusing Brown of rape and sexual assault.
“They took action,” Banks said of the NFL. “The Patriots then chose to release him. And I suppose we can quibble with whether they should have hired him in the first instance or they felt like, well, he’s going to be penalized and not be able to play so it’s easy for them to do. But they did it. And I think what we’ve seen in years past is that the NFL and the teams in the NFL haven’t always done the right thing.”
Last Wednesday, Banks and the artist met with NFL officials, who are continuing an investigation into Brown, though he is no longer playing in the league. The NFL also responded to his tweet that appeared to encourage fan violence against the Sports Illustrated writer who broke the story, Banks said.
Also last week, Katz was representing Patricia Wulf, one of two women who attached their names to accusations of sexual misconduct against Domingo, the renowned opera singer. Twenty women had spoken to the Associated Press about him, but the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb told chorus and orchestra members all the accusers were unnamed; that they had not come forward to other news outlets; and that the AP’s reporting lacked “corroboration,” National Public Radio reported.
“That might have been an argument that could have been made pre-October 2017,” Katz said, pointing to the launch of the #MeToo movement. “But companies just can’t do that anymore. To say, well we’re giving him a pass, he’s denied it, and the 20 women who have come forward with a very similar account, they can’t be trusted? We’re just beyond the days where that’s going to work.” Within days, Domingo was out.
Banks and Katz have been practicing together for nearly 20 years and spun off their own firm with partner David Marshall in 2006.
Banks, who grew up in Canton, said that she originally wanted to be a player for the Red Sox; her father finally had to break it to her that they didn’t take girls. “I had to be a civil rights lawyer instead to right those wrongs,” she jokes.
Founded in 2003, the Victim Rights Law Center was the first nonprofit law firm in the country dedicated to the legal needs of sexual assault survivors, providing assistance with civil matters like housing — for instance, helping someone break a lease on an apartment so she does not need to remain living where she was raped.
Past honorees include Kristin Gibbons Feden, who prosecuted comedian Bill Cosby; feminist icon Gloria Steinem; and attorney and professor Anita Hill, who spoke out about sexual harassment in 1991; US Representative Ayanna Pressley; actress and activist Ashley Judd; and The Boston Globe Spotlight Team.