The New York State Task Force on Women and the Courts -- a panel of judges, law professors, lawyers and civic leaders -- has concluded that gender bias is pervasive throughout the state's court system and that it has grave, adverse effects on women litigants, women attorneys and women who work as court employes.
New York is the second state -- New Jersey was the first -- to commission such a detailed examination of the way its court system treats women and its findings ought to be instructive to many other communities.
In its report to New York State Supreme Court Chief Judge Sol Wachtler, the task force wrote that "cultural stereotypes of women's role in marriage and in society daily distorts court's application of substantive law. Women uniquely, disproportionately, and with unacceptable frequency must endure a climate of condescension, indifference and hostility.
"The problems women face -- rooted in a web of prejudice, circumstance, privilege, custom, misinformation and indifference -- affect women of every age, race, region, and economic status. When women are poor or economically dependent, their problems are compounded. They often must traverse the justice system alone, facing indifference or contempt." As a result, the task force found: "Real hardships are borne by women. An exacting price is ultimately paid by our entire society."
Edward J. McLaughlin, supervising judge of the Onondaga County Family Court and the chairman of the task force, said the single biggest problem women face is credibility. "Many women are not seen as credible persons, persons to be taken seriously," he said in releasing the task force's findings.
Among the illustrations he cited were judges failing to understand the nature of domestic violence and blaming the victim. The result: "Women are deterred from seeking relief or are given ineffective result," and end up unprotected. Judges who fail to recognize a wife's contribution to marriage distribute property inequitably, causing the wife severe economic dislocation not shared by her husband.
"When women's effort to obtain and enforce child support awards are treated as unimportant, as a low priority, or even as vindictiveness, women are forced to make repeated court appearances, sometimes to hold down more than one job, and often to go on welfare to provide their children with the necessities of life," McLaughlin noted.
The task force pointed out that many homemakers are put at a disadvantage because courts don't award attorneys fees that are adequate to ensure proper representation and the women don't have money to hire experts to determine the value of marital assets. And, after the awards are made, "many judges fail to enforce them," the task force reported. Further, it found that judges -- who overwhelmingly are men -- do not fully understand what homemaking and child-rearing involve or the cost of rearing children. Support awards "frequently are inadequate and appear to be based on what the father can comfortably afford rather than the standard of living of the children and their special needs." When women try to get awards enforced, judges view them as being vindictive. Women are further disadvantaged because they can't afford counsel to help collect awards.
The task force found numerous direct, overt and subtle ways in which men and women were treated differently by the court systems throughout the state. The old canards still abound: women's dress and life style, their perceived reaction to the crime of rape still play a part in obtaining convictions. A victim who knew her rapist is less likely to see him convicted and punished. Women lawyers and litigants are still subject to "sexist remarks and conduct by judges, lawyers, and court personnel." Aggressive behavior is rewarded for male attorneys but deemed out of place for women attorneys.
Both the New York and New Jersey task forces received technical assistance from the National Judicial Education Program, which was established by the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund in 1980 in cooperation with the National Association of Women's Judges. The NJEP has developed programs across the country using local laws, and usually local judges, to educate judges and lawyers about gender bias in the courts.
The task force made numerous recommendations for bar associations, law schools, judges and court administrators to remedy the uneven-handed way in which justice is meted out in New York. It is an exercise every other state ought to engage in. As the task force pointed out, when justice is unequal, everyone pays.