Sexism taints nation's justice, panel says Bias called widespread

October 11, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- Sex bias pervades the nation's justice system, affecting women as lawyers, litigants and employees, a panel of top jurists said at a gathering of 250 female judges meeting in Philadelphia over the weekend.

Women are treated unequally both as lawyers and in judges' decisions, and stereotyped myths and biases skew everything from personal-injury damage awards to prison sentences and decisions on alimony and child support, the jurists said.

"This is a problem perceived by virtually all women in the legal profession and very few of the men," said U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour of Seattle. "It is as if men and women look at the world through different prisms."

Judge Coughenour headed the first federal-court task force on gender bias in California and eight other Western states. The task force released its report in August.

Since 1983, when New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz created the first task force on women in the courts, 38 states have studied sex discrimination in their judicial systems.

On Saturday, at the annual convention of the National Association of Women Judges, Justice Wilentz and other leading national experts on sex bias in the courts again assessed the treatment of women.

The panel included Florida Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett, Chief Judge Judith W. Rogers of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Rosalie E. Wahl, and New Jersey Superior Court Judge Marilyn Loftus.

Among the findings of all the task forces:

* Women tend to get lighter sentences but often spend more otheir sentences in prison. Male prisoners tend to be released early to ease overcrowding in prisons. Women's prisons are not crowded.

* Girls tend to spend more time than boys in detention, becausjudges believe "boys will be boys but girls ought to behave like little ladies."

* Judges do not recognize either the wage-earning spouse'career as a major asset of the marriage or a homemaker-wife's contribution, and they distribute property inequitably in divorce settlements.

* Judges sometimes appear to give less credibility to femallawyers, witnesses, experts and probation officers than to their male counterparts.

* Female lawyers are three times more likely than their malcounterparts to be addressed by their first name or by terms of endearment. A majority of female lawyers surveyed said their peers had made offensive remarks or demeaning jokes about women. Two-thirds of these women said judges did the same.

* Female lawyers are less likely than men to get lucrative casreferrals or judicial appointments.

* Men get higher awards in actions involving wrongful death, losconsortium and future earnings. Homemakers involved in personal-injury suits receive modest awards because these awards are "unfairly skewed" to earning potential, and homemakers are not paid for their services. The panel urged that homemaking be considered work and that juries be instructed to assess an economic value for it.

* Judges tend to order mental examinations for women whcharge sexual harassment but almost never do when a man charges race or age discrimination.

* Top posts in the judicial system are dominated by men.

Justice Wilentz told the judges, whose four-day meeting ends today: "Many factors affect the success of eradicating gender bias, but none more than the attitude and determination of the entire system from top to bottom, and especially the top -- the court and the chief judges in each courthouse."

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