Hundreds of volunteers have been sitting quietly in Maryland's courtrooms this week, keeping their eyes peeled for displays of "gender bias" from the state's judges and lawyers.
It has not been the most covert of stakeouts, however. The judges saw them coming.
The weeklong "Courtwatch" was commissioned by the Women's Bar Association of Maryland as a follow-up to a 1989 study that said discrimination against women was widespread in the state's courts.
More than 370 volunteers -- mostly females, mostly students, paralegals and members of organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the House of Ruth -- were recruited and trained to monitor the courtrooms and keep score of everything from gender- and race-based jokes to the formality of the lawyers' attire.
The observers are there "to take the pulse of the judiciary," says Tricia O'Neill, co-chair of the Women's Bar Association's Committee of Gender Bias.
Some judges and volunteer court observers have criticized the Women's Bar Association for publicizing the "Courtwatch." The program was described in a bar association newsletter and in letters to judges.
Juliet Rothman, an ethics professor at Catholic University in Washington, was observing Judge James W. Dryden, who presided over a contract case yesterday in District Court in Annapolis.
"Why advertise this?" Miss Rothman said. "I think you'd get a more natural picture if you were a fly on the wall, but I wonder if that would be ethical."
"I think it's a good idea, but they shouldn't have let us know about it. Why not just come and observe," said Bruce C. Williams, administrative judge for Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, who quickly added, "Not that I changed anything."
Said Ms. O'Neill: "I didn't think I could amass 374 volunteers and keep it a secret."
And, she said, the warning wouldn't prevent judges and lawyers from displaying the type of sexism she expected to find, a more subtle expression of bias than was found in the 1989 study by a committee of judges and lawyers.
That report found judges often discount complaints from victims of domestic violence, set child-support and alimony payments too low and make sexist comments and propositions to women.
A female attorney with more than a decade of experience in domestic cases says there is still plenty of sexism in courtrooms, especially in cases involving child custody.
"Women who want custody are held to much higher standards than men. They just have to be saints. They can't have any flaws," says the lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity. "I'm sure the judges don't think they are biased."
Ms. O'Neill was unable yesterday to provide any preliminary results because the score cards are to be mailed in. She said a report on the survey results will be released by the end of the year.
The courtroom observers are not only looking for discrimination based on sex, but they also are recording demographic information on the judges, lawyers and courtroom personnel and are looking for examples of discrimination based on race or physical appearance.
Warren B. Duckett Jr., an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge, says the program is a good idea -- even if the judges have been tipped off.
"If they're out to get something on you, it defeats the purpose," he says. "If they're there to educate you, it doesn't. Just to know the public is interested and concerned is great motivation."