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Judicial Conference Approves Package of Workplace Conduct Reforms

The federal Judiciary’s national policy-making body today approved a package of workplace conduct-related amendments stating the obligations of judges and Judiciary employees to report reliable information likely to constitute misconduct; making clear that confidentiality obligations should never be an obstacle to reporting judicial misconduct or disability; and specifying that retaliation for disclosing misconduct is itself misconduct.

The changes to the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees, and the Judicial Conduct and Disability (JC&D) Act Rules respond to recommendations contained in the June 1, 2018, report of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group. In response to those recommendations, proposed amendments to the Judges’ Code and JC&D Act Rules were published for a 60-day public comment period and the proposed amendments to the Judicial Employees Code were released for a 60-day internal, Judiciary-wide comment period. The Committee on Codes of Conduct and the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability held a joint public hearing on October 30, 2018, to hear comments concerning the proposed amendments. The hearing was broadcast live over uscourts.gov.

The changes approved today by the Judicial Conference of the United States take effect immediately.

In many instances, the changes state explicitly what already has been implicit in the Codes and Rules.

The amendments to the Rules include provisions that make clear that misconduct includes:

  • Engaging in unwanted, offensive, or abusive sexual conduct, including sexual harassment or assault;
  • Treating judicial employees or others in a demonstrably egregious and hostile manner;
  • Creating a hostile work environment for judicial employees;
  • Intentionally discriminating on the basis of race, color, sex, gender, gender identity, pregnancy, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, age, or disability;
  • Retaliating against complainants, witnesses, judicial employees, or others for participating in the complaint process or reporting or disclosing judicial misconduct or disability;
  • Failing to call to the attention of the chief district or circuit judge reliable information reasonably likely to constitute judicial misconduct or disability, with certain protections where the complainant requests confidentiality.

The Codes and Rules also make clear that the confidentiality obligations of employees should never be an obstacle to reporting judicial misconduct or disability.  

In addition to recommending changes to the Codes of Conduct and JC&D Rules, the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group recommended that the Judiciary: 1) strengthen and streamline procedures for identifying and correcting misconduct and develop alternative, less formal options for employees to seek guidance and register complaints, and 2) expand training to prevent misbehavior and promote civility throughout the Judiciary. Initiatives to implement these recommendations are ongoing at both the local and national level, and significant progress has been made in these areas.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has established the Office of Judicial Integrity (OJI), which serves as a national clearinghouse for the circuits and provides Judiciary employees with an independent and confidential avenue for guidance and counseling. Circuits are pursuing similar initiatives. The OJI has set up a dedicated phone line and an intranet site through which employees can report harassment or abusive behavior to the Judicial Integrity Officer. Similar resources soon will be available to the public through uscourts.gov.

In addition, a group of judges and court staff currently is drafting a new Model Employment Dispute Resolution Plan, which is expected to be considered by the Conference at its next meeting. Some changes already have been made, including extending the Plan to cover paid and unpaid interns and externs and to extend the time for filing a complaint from 30 to 180 days.               

The Federal Judicial Center has expanded its focus on workplace conduct training. The FJC offers more than 30 in-person and video programs on prohibited discrimination, including workplace harassment, as well as topics such as overcoming bias, valuing diversity, facilitating teamwork, giving effective feedback, providing leadership in challenging situations, and using effective strategies to enhance respectful communications. Discussions with in-person attendees cover topics likely to arise in interactions among judges, law clerks, and court staff.

In other action, the Judicial Conference:

  • Approved, as it does every two years, a recommendation to Congress to create new judgeships. The recommendation is to create five new court of appeals judgeships and 65 new district judgeships and to convert to permanent status eight existing temporary district judgeships.
  • Received a special report from Judge Susan R. Bolton, chair of its Space and Facilities Committee, on the Judiciary’s successful achievement of the target it set in 2013 to reduce court space by three percent by the end of fiscal year 2018. The Judiciary exceeded its target reduction level by more than 30 percent. By reducing its space footprint by more than 1.2 million usable square feet, the Judiciary is saving $36 million in annual rent. 

The 26-member Judicial Conference is the policy-making body for the federal court system. By statute, the Chief Justice of the United States serves as its presiding officer and its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch.

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