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Federal courts will review sexual harassment policies

“I have great confidence in the men and women who comprise our judiciary,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. “I am sure that the overwhelming number have no tolerance for harassment.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/File 2016

WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John Roberts is promising a careful evaluation of the federal judiciary’s sexual misconduct policies.

Writing in his annual report on the judiciary, issued Sunday, Roberts touched briefly on the issue of workplace sexual misconduct, which has in recent months brought down men in entertainment, politics, and the media.

In December, prominent federal appeals court Judge Alex Kozinski retired after accusations by women that he had touched them inappropriately, made lewd comments and shown them pornography.

‘‘Events in recent months have illuminated the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, and events in the past few weeks have made clear that the judicial branch is not immune,’’ Roberts wrote, without mentioning Kozinski by name.


Roberts had previously asked that a working group examine the judiciary’s workplace conduct policies, with a report expected by May 1.

The chief justice wrote that the group will examine whether changes are needed in a number of areas, from codes of conduct to the handling of misconduct complaints.

‘‘I have great confidence in the men and women who comprise our judiciary. I am sure that the overwhelming number have no tolerance for harassment and share the view that victims must have clear and immediate recourse to effective remedies,’’ the chief justice wrote in the 16-page report.

Kozinski resigned two weeks ago after The Washington Post reported that 15 women had accused him of sexual harassment. Other women came forward later with similar complaints.

The women, many of whom had served as his law clerks, said Kozinski had touched them inappropriately, made unwanted sexual comments and forced them to view sexual materials on his computer.

Kozinski had served on the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals for more than three decades, establishing a reputation as a powerful and unpredictable intellect and a vivid writer.


Kozinski, a libertarian, was first appointed to the Ninth Circuit by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. From 2007 to 2014, he served as chief judge of the court, the largest federal appeals court in the United States.

In announcing his retirement, Kozinski suggested that he had been misunderstood and apologized.

“I’ve always had a broad sense of humor and a candid way of speaking to both male and female law clerks alike,” he wrote. “In doing so, I may not have been mindful enough of the special challenges and pressures that women face in the workplace.”

Roberts said the task force may look into whether enough protection is given to young lawyers who serve as clerks to judges.

The lawyers, who typically serve for a year soon after graduating from law school, might require special attention, Roberts suggested, because they are supposed to keep confidential what happens in their judge’s chambers.

“I expect the working group to consider whether changes are needed in our codes of conduct, our guidance to employees — including law clerks — on issues of confidentiality and reporting of instances of misconduct, our educational programs, and our rules for investigating and processing mis-conduct complaints,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts spent most of his year-end report talking about the federal judiciary’s response to this year’s devastating hurricanes, which affected Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, and he also mentioned wildfires in California

Roberts praised judges and court employees in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in particular, saying that after hurricanes Irma and Maria, they ‘‘responded in dedicated and even heroic fashion,’’ continuing to work ‘‘even in the face of personal emergencies.’’


He said the judiciary has also learned lessons from the storms and will develop better backup communications systems and do more to position emergency supplies in areas susceptible to hurricanes and flooding.

Roberts said the judiciary must be ready for a range of potential disasters, such as earthquakes, cyberterrorism, and terrorist attacks.

‘‘The courts cannot provide food, shelter, or medical aid, but they must stand ready to perform their judicial functions as part of the recovery effort,’’ he wrote.