Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Hassan El-Amin was reprimanded last year after his former administrative assistant filed a sexual harassment complaint against him, according to a letter from the county’s administrative judge that acknowledged the discipline.
But the exact nature of the reprimand El-Amin received remains undisclosed, even to Denise Lowe-Williams, the woman who filed the grievance.
Williams now is seeking more transparency in the judicial discipline process, saying that as someone who struggled to speak out against a person in a position of power she is frustrated by the confidentiality that cloaks the outcome.
“If they want to keep it hush, at least tell the victim what has been done,” Williams, 52, said. “It can really ruin a person’s self-esteem, and it can make it seem like they did something wrong when they’re sticking their neck out.”
Williams filed the complaint against El-Amin in September, accusing him of subjecting her to a sexually charged work environment since at least 2012. Williams said the judge would call her while he was on vacation to tell her he missed her, according to copies of the complaint she shared with The Washington Post. The complaint was first reported by WRC-TV (NBC4).
In her complaint, Williams asserted the judge showed her graphic photos that served as evidence in cases he presided over and commented on how she looked in certain clothing — pieces of her wardrobe she promptly donated to charity after hearing his remarks.
“It always ended up with some theme or something with sex,” Williams said in an interview. “I would get tired of it. It was emotionally draining.” She said she sought therapy to cope with the harassment.
El-Amin has been a Prince George’s circuit court judge since 2011 and previously was a district court judge. A woman who answered the phone in El-Amin’s chambers Thursday said he had no comment on the matter.
Williams would tell the judge that his comments or actions made her uncomfortable, but he persisted, she said in an interview.
After four years of worrying that she, an at-will employee, would be fired if she spoke up, she decided to step forward.
Two weeks after sending her complaint to Administrative Judge Sheila Tillerson Adams, Williams, Adams and another court official met, according to emails retained by Williams. At the Oct. 5 meeting, Adams approved transferring Williams to a different administrative position within the court at her current salary and benefits, according to Williams and to a letter she shared that was signed by Adams.
“Please be advised that, based on its investigation, the Court has taken prompt remedial action to redress and prevent any harassing or discriminatory behavior,” Adams wrote in the Oct. 11 letter to Williams.
When Williams asked the administrative judge and court administrator’s office what remedial action the judge faced in connection with her case, she was told the information was confidential.
Terri Charles, a spokeswoman for the Maryland judiciary, said that because the issue is a personnel matter, state law prevents her from commenting on the specific case against El-Amin or addressing Williams’s concerns over transparency. The offices of the Maryland judiciary did not respond to questions about how many times judges in the state have been disciplined internally over the past year.
“Any employee may file a complaint of discrimination or harassment directly with his or her employer, or with a state or federal fair employment practices agency,” Charles said in a statement. “Those complaints are investigated internally and the employer may take prompt remedial action to redress or prevent any potential discriminatory or harassing conduct.”
Williams hired an attorney in hopes of getting more answers, but she still hasn’t learned more.
“Ms. Williams was advised by Administrative Judge Adams that remedial action was taken to both redress and prevent any potential harassing conduct,” according to a letter Williams and her attorney received in December from the attorney general’s Office of Courts and Judicial Affairs. “To the extent that such remedial action involves confidential personnel matters, Judge Adams is not at liberty to disclose any further information.”
The letter went on to say that in light of Williams’s complaint, all circuit court judges in Prince George’s County and neighboring Charles, Calvert and St. Mary’s counties received “additional training on harassment and discrimination.”
Mindy Farber, an attorney who briefly represented Williams in her harassment case, said it is not easy for Williams and others who file similar complaints against judges to come forward against someone in a position of power. Farber that a process that is “shrouded in secrecy” could act as a deterrent to reporting concerns.
“It’s very disadvantageous to a person who has the courage to speak up,” she said. “You don’t know whether they took you seriously enough so you can be at peace with a resolution. It shouldn’t be a guessing game.”
But attorneys who have represented judges facing reprimand in Maryland said the details of such investigations are often kept confidential to protect judges from claims that are not credible and could unfairly ruin a reputation.
Andrew T. Stephenson, a Baltimore-based attorney who has represented judges in the past, said it appears Williams wasn’t ignored. “Obviously, they took her seriously if he was reprimanded,” Stephenson said.
But Williams said she wants to know the final outcome of her case and why El-Amin remains on the bench.
Williams said she has filed a new complaint with the Maryland Commission on Judicial Disabilities, which also reviews allegations against judges.
“I’m praying that this makes a difference for victims and the accused,” Williams said. “They really need to redo that policy where the victim is not allowed to know what sanctions are placed against the defendant. It makes it seem like nobody cares.”