Sex on the Docket: Reports of State Task Forces on Gender Bias

Article excerpt

Women have fought many political and legal battles against bias in the United States, winning the right to vote, access to jobs and occupations formerly dominated by men, and legal prohibitions against sex-based discrimination. Remarkable progress has been made during the past 30 years on many fronts. But one of the most durable fortresses of patriarchy and bias against women is also perhaps the most important in terms of both symbol and substance. The courts, the legal profession, and other aspects of the national and state judicial systems are critically linked to political and economic power. So long as women do not receive fair and equal treatment under the law and in the halls of justice, their struggle remains bittersweet and incomplete.

However, since the early 1980s, 39 states, the District of Columbia, and nine of the 13 federal circuits have established task forces on gender bias in the judiciary. Charged with investigating gender bias, documenting its existence, issuing recommendations to eliminate it, and creating organizations and processes to oversee Its destruction, the task forces have produced an extraordinary series of reports that are taking a toll on gender bias in its myriad forms. Thirty-four final reports and many implementation and follow-up reports are now in print.

This article is based on an examination of the 34 final state reports and numerous related documents (see Appendix). We describe and summarize the origins of the gender bias movement and the content of the reports, including methodology, findings and recommendations, and efforts to implement change. We conclude with a discussion of the reports' implications. As a collection, the reports present a rich source of empirical and anecdotal data and afford a unique opportunity to examine gender bias in a once-neglected yet critically important public administration setting.

Origins of the Gender Bias Movement

Historically, women were excluded from making, interpreting, studying, and practicing the law. As recently as the early 1970s, women comprised only 15 percent of attorneys and 4 percent of judges. Sexual bias in the practice and administration of the law and against women as lawyers, litigants, and court employees was pervasive. As women entered the legal profession in much greater numbers, they began sharing their experiences--both formally and informally--in conferences, workshops, professional meetings, and conversations. Empirical studies of gender bias began appearing in scholarly and legal research. Fragmented activities coalesced in 1980, when the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the newly-formed National Association of Women Judges created the National Judicial Education Program to Promote Equality for Women and Men in the Courts (NJEP), with the purpose of educating the judiciary on gender bias. NJEP efforts were quickly endorsed by several prominent judicial organizations.

NJEP activities encountered a substantial amount of disbelief, denial, and resistance. It became apparent that the attack on gender bias would require concrete data and evidence from the states (Wikler, 1990). New Jersey took the lead in elevating gender bias from obscurity to prominence with a presentation to state judges in 1982, followed by publication of the first gender bias task force report in 1983. New York, Rhode Island, and Arizona established task forces the next year, followed by Massachusetts and Utah in 1986. The topic of gender bias in the courts won a spot on the educational program of the Conference of Chief Justices in 1986. Two years later, the Conference adopted a resolution urging each state chief justice to establish a gender bias task force. Nine additional states appointed task forces in 1989. As of January 1996, only Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming had failed to climb on the bandwagon.

Even a brief scan of a handful of the reports leads to the ineluctable conclusion that the state task forces benefited from cross pollination. …