Judicial Council Moves Against Sex Bias : Expanded Inquiry, Hearings Will Gather Facts on Gender Gap in Legal System

Times Staff Writer

The state Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of the judiciary, is launching an expanded and wide-ranging inquiry into sex discrimination in the California court system.

Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas has announced that the council plans a series of public hearings--the first of its kind in the state--designed to permit judges, lawyers, court aides and others to testify about gender bias in courtroom proceedings, judicial appointments, court employment and other areas of the system.

The first hearing is set for Los Angeles on Jan. 30, with subsequent daylong sessions planned for San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento and Fresno.

Expands Investigation


The statewide fact-finding inquiry represents a significant expansion of an investigation begun in 1986 by the council under former Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird.

As Bird’s successor, Lucas has continued and enlarged what now is a 35-member council committee--made up of judges, legislators, lawyers and law professors--that is spearheading the current study.

Lucas, calling the inquiry “important,” said in a statement issued Thursday: “We urge experts from the justice system, as well as members of the public, to present their views so that the committee’s recommendations to the Judicial Council will be based on diverse public comment and participation.”

The study, according to the announcement, will focus on “stereotypical attitudes” about the roles of women and men; “cultural perceptions” about their relative worth, and “myths and misconceptions” about both sexes.

Los Angeles Superior Judge David M. Rothman, co-chairman of the committee along with state Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), said Friday that he expects the group to compile a report by the fall and then make recommendations to the 21-member Judicial Council. The council, in turn, may impose new rules or standards on the court system, initiate educational programs and propose new laws to the Legislature.

“The judicial system needs to provide fair and equal treatment to all people involved in the courts,” Rothman said. “What this effort shows is the judiciary’s willingness to examine itself and to try to do its job better.”

The judge noted that the study will not be limited to bias against women. “There is a tendency to think of gender bias as only relating to women,” he said. “But there could be instances where it is affecting men. For example, it may be found that men are unfairly presumed to be not the best caretaker in child custody cases.”

Los Angeles Superior Judge Judith C. Chirlin, vice chairwoman of the committee, noted that there also is concern in legal circles that certain areas of the law--such as family law and juvenile justice--were not accorded sufficient attention and financial resources, perhaps because of gender bias.

“Historically, these areas have been chronically underfunded and regarded as ‘women’s work,”’ Chirlin said. “They’re not seen as important as ‘real law'--like corporate law or antitrust.”

Rothman, Chirlin and committee aides described a wide range of questions likely to emerge during the hearings, including:

- Courtroom treatment. Do male judges consciously or unconsciously degrade female attorneys, discounting their credibility and placing them at a disadvantage in the courtroom? Are women viewed as more emotional and thus less reliable as witnesses?

- Court employment and administration. Are clerks and other aides treated unfairly and hired, assigned or promoted on the basis of their gender?

- Judicial decision-making. Are substantive decisions--particularly those involving child custody, child support, domestic violence and other areas of family law--affected by sex bias?

- Court appointments. Are women overlooked in the selection of court-appointed counsel, referees, mediators and commissioners?

The committee also is expected to look into gender bias within the judiciary itself, considering, for example, whether parental leave should be provided for judges or whether case assignments may be affected by the gender of the judge.

“One question that may arise is whether female judges are being automatically tracked into family law and child custody instead of being assigned cases involving complex litigation or the death penalty,” a committee official said.

In addition to the hearings, the committee plans to conduct a survey of judges, meet with Bar officials and visit jails and other correctional facilities in its quest for data involving sex discrimination.

The council’s first gender-bias committee was appointed by Bird in July, 1986, and was modeled after a pioneering study in New York that found that women were frequently demeaned and patronized in that state’s judicial system.

In the ensuing years, similar inquiries have been launched elsewhere and currently there are 26 states in the country studying the problem, according to Bobbie L. Welling, staff attorney for the California Administrative Office of the Courts.

In December, 1986, the state Judicial Council adopted a series of initial recommendations by the gender-bias committee, establishing new standards that require judges to “refrain from and prevent” conduct exhibiting prejudice; urge courts to provide waiting rooms for children, and call for the use of “gender-neutral” language in court forms and documents.

The schedule of hearings is as follows:

Jan. 30. Los Angeles, Mark Taper Hall of Economics, California Museum of Science and Industry, 700 State Drive, Exposition Park, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Feb. 27. San Diego, Board of Supervisors’ Chambers, San Diego County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

March 6. San Francisco, Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown Building Auditorium, 505 Van Ness Ave., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

March 20. Sacramento, State Capitol Hearing Room, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

April 3. Fresno, Fresno State Office Building, 2550 Mariposa Mall, Room 1036, Assembly Room, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.