Courts in the Era of #WeToo: Assisting Judges and Court Professionals to Respond to Sexual Harassment and Abuse in the Court as a Workplace

This fall, the National Association for Court Management (NACM) announced the release of resources and curricula to assist judges and court professionals to respond to sexual and gender harassment and abuse in the courts as a workplace.

The State Justice Institute (SJI) funded NACM to implement their proposed Courts in the Era of #WeToo curriculum project, which was collaboratively designed and proposed by NACM, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), the National Association of Women Judges (NAWJ), and Futures Without Violence. The shared vision of the partners was to develop and deliver nationally significant educational programs and guidance focused on sexual harassment and assault, including actions targeted against LGBTQ+ individuals in the courts, and to provide distance-learning opportunities to broaden the opportunities for education on this topic to judges, court managers, administrators, and other court professionals.

As an introduction to the curricula, the advisory committee was asked several questions, which the training attempts to answer. A brief summary is noted below.

Why Is Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment Response Training Needed in the Courts?
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., noted that recent efforts to combat workplace harassment in federal courthouses around the country are strengthening “our culture of accountability and professionalism,” but more needs to be done to foster the “exemplary workplace that we all want.” Writing in his annual report on the state of the federal judiciary, Roberts said, “the job is not finished until we have done all that we can to ensure that all of our employees are treated with fairness, dignity, and respect.” It was the second annual report in which Roberts discussed the need for the judiciary to take steps to end sexual harassment in the workplace and to make it easier for court employees to report improper conduct without running afoul of strict confidentiality rules. “These concerns warrant serious attention from all quarters of the judicial branch,” Roberts wrote in the Supreme Court’s 2017 report.

Likewise, all courts have a duty to strengthen “our culture of accountability and professionalism.” To that end, the partners committed to develop resources to aid courts in identifying and addressing sexual harassment in the court workplace to 1) develop and deliver nationally significant educational programs, related material, and curricula with focus on the sexual harassment in the courts, and 2) provide distance-learning opportunities to broaden the scope and delivery of educational opportunities available in a convenient and flexible method accessed by judges, court managers, administrators, and other court professionals. This includes many of NACM’s justice partners such as the Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ), Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA), National Association of State Judicial Educators (NASJE), American Judges Association (AJA), National Association of Presiding Judges and Court Executive Officers (NAPCO), state court management associations, and NACM’s international partners.

Sexual harassment prevention training is important to create a safe workplace culture. Creating a training program that addresses the issues unique to the court environment is the focus of the curricula. NACM and its partners on this project embarked on a joint effort to bring this training to our state courts and their leadership.

Why Is Court Culture on Harassment Important to Address?
Courts have a duty to be accountable and provide justice for the people they serve. And as an organization and employer, we have a similar obligation to make our courts a safe place to work. Public trust and confidence in the courts is critical to a well-functioning society. We know how easily our courts can lose the confidence of the public. So, too, can our courts and their leadership be seen as out of touch with the judges and staff that help run the judiciary.

But perhaps more importantly, as is addressed in the curricula, is that there are power dynamics in the courts that do not exist in other organizations. The courts have judges that may be elected and whose disciplinary process is different from court staff. Many of our courts have staff that are paid by different entities—city, county, state, and even community partners and nonprofits. And then there are litigants, witnesses, attorneys, and many others who appear in court. All these different reporting lines and relationships make for a challenging environment to manage. The curricula explore these nuances.

How Should Court Leadership Be Involved?
Aside from establishing sexual harassment policies and training, court leadership needs to set good examples and show their judges and court staff that they are all treated fairly when it comes to issue of harassment in the workplace. With the appropriate training, court leaders can learn how to recognize acts of sexual and gender-based harassment and the proper ways to respond. The advisory committee strongly believes that the senior judicial leadership must set the tone for acceptable behavior in the courts as a workplace for the rest of the court to follow. A committed, engaged court leadership is essential.

What Is in the Training?
With critical guidance from our advisory committee made up of judges and court leaders from around the country, the partners developed a curricula informed by the experience of judges and court managers, built around proven adult-learning principles, and responsive to current issues and real leadership challenges. It is intended to be taught by a teaching team (ideally consisting of at least one judge and one court administrator) in three separate, three-hour modules as follows:

Module 1: Fundamentals of Sexual Harassment Affecting Judicial Environments

  • Sexual Harassment and Its Impact on Judicial Operations and Culture
  • Root Causes: Power and Control in Judicial Environments

Module 2: Preventing and Responding to Sexual Harassment in Judicial Environments

  • Eliminating the Drivers of Sexual Harassment in Judicial Environments
  • Centering Needs and Promoting Accountability

Module 3: Leadership Strategies to Create and Sustain a Culture of Safety, Respect, and Dignity

  • Principles of Self-Awareness, Reciprocal Accountability, and Emotional Intelligence
  • Judicial Environments as Community Models

What Help Is Available for Court Leaders?
In addition to drafting the curricula, the #WeToo partners trained six teams of trainers to use the curriculum with the expectation that they would be willing and available to train colleagues in their home states and across the country. The #WeToo curricula can be provided virtually and in person. The materials are available online and can be used to self-learn to be taught locally.

What Benefits Does the Training Provide?
A sexual harassment prevention training program can make court staff feel better about their workplace and can convey that their court and its leadership truly care about them. As a result, a court culture that supports its staff is more productive and inclusive. The lessons learned from training can move beyond the walls of the courthouse. Court staff who better understand the sexual and gender-based harassment and how it impacts other people can avoid these behaviors in their personal lives and help others do the same.


T. J. BeMent is district court administrator, 10th Judicial District of Georgia and past president of NACM.