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Court to investigate leaked survey alleging misconduct among judges

Disclosure of the confidential survey has amplified criticism of the judiciary among some in Congress, where pending legislation would extend to the judiciary’s 30,000 employees the same antidiscrimination rights afforded to other government employees.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Federal court officials in D.C. will investigate the public disclosure of a confidential employee survey detailing accusations that some judges subjected staff to gender discrimination, bullying and racial insensitivity.

D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Sri Srinivasan informed colleagues of the planned investigation after The Washington Post on Monday published a report about the survey’s findings and the reluctance among courthouse employees to file workplace misconduct complaints against their superiors for fear of reprisal.

Srinivasan said Thursday that leaders of the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit initiated the survey last year to “better understand our employees’ workplace experiences, and employees who completed the survey did so on the understanding that their responses would be used only for that purpose and kept confidential.”

“The leak of a confidential document compiling the responses was a serious breach of that understanding and must be investigated,” he said in a statement. Srinivasan did not respond to questions seeking further details about the inquiry.

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Federal judiciary leaders nationwide have taken steps to overhaul the process for reporting misconduct in U.S. courthouses. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and other court officials have resisted intervention from Congress, where pending legislation would extend to the judiciary’s 30,000 employees the same anti-discrimination rights afforded to other government employees.

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday informed court officials that, as part of its “ongoing investigation of workplace misconduct in the federal judiciary,” lawmakers wish to examine the workplace survey and related materials distributed to courthouse staff.

In a statement, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee chairman, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said that accounts of misconduct disclosed in the survey illustrate “why our federal judges are lobbying against legislation that would extend the nation’s fundamental anti-discrimination laws to the people who work for them.”

“While it is commendable that the D.C. Circuit has finally conducted a workplace climate survey, the results are further evidence of the culture of silence that allows judges and supervisors across the county to act with impunity,” their statement says.

Srinivasan referred questions about the letter to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The office declined to comment on the lawmakers’ request, but said that “keeping the promise of confidentiality to employees who take workplace surveys is critical to ensuring that those employees feel comfortable providing candid information that will allow the Judiciary to identify and address workplace issues.”

The office, which handles media requests for the research agency that conducted the survey, praised the D.C. Circuit for seeking input from courthouse staff and said judiciary employees already are protected from “all forms of discrimination, discriminatory harassment, and retaliation, as well as abusive conduct.”

The judiciary has made “significant strides,” the office added, toward “sustaining a safe, respectful, and professional environment for everyone in the federal court system.”

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The anonymous survey of federal court staff for the trial and appeals courts was conducted last year by the Federal Judicial Center and completed last July. More than 90 percent of the roughly 400 current and recent court employees who participated said they had not personally experienced, witnessed or heard about incidents of wrongful conduct.

Most respondents — 89 percent — gave the U.S. District Court and the D.C. Circuit positive ratings as a workplace.

But the survey also includes detailed narrative accounts from employees who said they personally experienced problematic behavior and many more reports from those who indicated having either witnessed misconduct or being told about it. Those who acknowledged being reluctant to make a formal complaint said that, beyond concerns about retaliation they lacked faith in the judiciary’s system for accountability, which requires judges to police one another.

The D.C. Circuit’s plan to investigate how the survey was leaked is unusual but not without precedent. In 1992, a D.C. Circuit judge urged his colleagues to initiate a similar probe to identify the source for a news article detailing the position that then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had taken in a draft opinion for a controversial affirmative action case. An investigation was never conducted.

Stephen Gillers, an expert in judicial ethics at New York University’s law school, said that while the current D.C. Circuit investigation is unusual, Srinivasan as the chief judge has “legitimate institutional concerns that the court will not be able to encourage people to disclose information like this next time. He has to take it seriously.”

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court announced an investigation into the disclosure to Politico of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.'s draft majority opinion to overturn the constitutional right to abortion. It is unclear whether the high court will publicly release the results of its leak investigation.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.