VOL. 111 | NO. 65 | Thursday, April 3, 1997
Gender Fairness in the Courts
Commission on gender fairness makes
recommendations to states Supreme Court
By SUZANNE THOMPSON
The Daily News
If the Tennessee Supreme Court acts on recent recommendations, training in gender fairness will become a part of every lawyers continuing legal education by 1998.
That and other recommendations were made to the Supreme Court by the Commission on Gender Fairness, which the court established in 1994 and charged with investigating the treatment of women at all levels of the legal system.
Kathryn Reed Edge, a Nashville attorney who has been involved in the issue of gender fairness in the courts, and Vanderbilt law professor Donald J. Hall co-chaired the commission, which submitted its final report to the court in mid-January.
Carol Chumney, an attorney with Glankler Brown in Memphis who served on the commission, said the group examined evidence from a variety of sources.
"There was a lot of anecdotal evidence that was presented to the Tennessee Bar Association Commission on Women and Minorities which is what is referenced in this report," she said.
Chumney said that while the Gender Fairness Commission heard additional written and oral testimony from various organizations such as Dads Against Discrimination, most of the information came from TBAs commission.
Edge said the Gender Fairness Commission also investigated the actions of members of the court system, including lawyers, judges and court personnel, to see how equitably women were treated.
She stressed that the focus was narrowed to courts and did not include law schools and hiring practices at law firms an area Edge said is vitally important.
She said her greatest concern for the future was "being sure that women are afforded equal opportunity for client development and that we teach our law students early, before they get out and establish bad habits."
Local female attorneys and judges say that though progress has been made in gender fairness, there is still much to be accomplished.
Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Janice Holder attributes the progress she has seen in the last decade, in part, to the volume of women graduating from law schools each year.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the sheer numbers of women in the profession," said Holder, who recently became the Tennessee Supreme Court gender fairness liaison.
Federal Judge Bernice B. Donald said that groups such as the Memphis Bar Association also have taken a stance against gender bias by promulgating guidelines for courtesy and conduct in the courts.
The MBA instituted a disciplinary program which can impose monetary sanctions on attorneys who engage in gender discriminatory behavior.
Additionally, a judge can deny a participants further participation in a proceeding if, at the discretion of the court, the judge feels that the individuals inappropriate courtroom conduct warrants such action.
However, while there has been progress in achieving fairness in the legal system, female judges said forms of gender bias exist.
"In Shelby County, I believe, there is still some de-valuing of women in the courts," Donald said.
For instance, she said she had heard complaints from women who said they felt they were perceived as less credible witnesses than males.
To address these issues and ensure continued progress, the commissions report contains a list of recommendations which would enhance uniform gender fairness practices in the courts.
One recommendation concerns eliminating gender-biased language in court. Edge heralded the actions of the court in this area and said much progress had been made in reducing the use of prejudicial language.
"Now, language is inclusive rather than exclusive," she said.
The commission also recommended requiring, beginning Jan. 1 and for every even numbered year, that three hours of ethics and professionalism CLE hours from 15 total hours required contain some component of gender fairness training.
Another recommendation encourages continuing gender fairness education for judges, which is already part of judicial performance and evaluation programs, and proposes methods to evaluate judges on their gender fairness practices.
The commission also wants the states high court to establish a system to collect data tracking and evaluating the placement of women in the legal system.
One proposed method is including a line on the dues voucher of the Board of Professional Responsibility requesting information about the lawyers sex and race.
The commission further recommended that the Administrative Office of the Court serve as the clearinghouse for the compilation of gender tracking data.
Another commission recommendation focused on establishing a gender neutral method in awarding probate attorney fees and a similarly random method to appoint attorneys to probate estates, a complaint Edge said came out of Memphis.
Edge said the evidence showed that white male attorneys were awarded larger and more lucrative estates, the fees of which are based on a percentage of the total estate value, while less lucrative assignments were made to women and minority attorneys.
The commission also recommended adopting an official handbook to be used by the courts, the example of which was taken from the courtesy and conduct guidelines published by the MBA.
Such literature, Edge said, could be used across Tennessee to give court employees a better idea what gender fairness means and to give the public information on where to lodge complaints if they feel they have been treated with bias by attorneys, court personnel or judges.
Edge said she had recently received a letter from Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Riley Anderson stating the courts commitment to implementing the reports suggestions, but the court has not officially adopted the recommendations yet.
"We are awaiting the Supreme Courts direction on what they want to do with this report," Edge said.