Meet the Lawyer Who Is Trying to Expose Judges Who Harass Their Clerks

Aliza Shatzman is dedicated to giving the judges a hard time.

She spends a lot of time responding to complaints from paralegals, who tell her stories of bullying, gender discrimination and harassment. She said these complaints come primarily from young law school graduates early in their careers, who have few outlets within the federal court system to voice their concerns anonymously.

That’s why she created a database to collect such stories and warn students of hostile situations, before it’s too late.

“The justice system needs more people to handle it,” Shatzman said. “There are far too many judges who mistreat their clerks and we must hold them accountable.”

Some 30,000 employees who work for the federal courts lack the civil rights protections that most other workers receive. Congress has proposed expanding their rights, but the judiciary resisted for years, citing concerns about its independence and separation of powers. This means that courts that hear employment discrimination and retaliation claims filed by workers are themselves exempt from such suits.

A new legislative push to expand civil rights protections could come later this year, according to aides to Rep. Hank Johnson, Democrat of Georgia, and Norma Torres, Democrat of California.

Until then, Shatzman’s Legal Accountability Project had surveyed employees to try to identify problem situations. It recently launched a database of 1,000 such surveys of former employees, who are encouraged to anonymously share the good, bad and ugly experiences they’ve had — even as some of the law schools the largest and most important in the country are resisting this effort.

“Law schools have not been held accountable for their role in these problems,” Shatzman said. “They have been sending students to known or suspected harassers for decades.”

Shatzman said she thinks some law schools are motivated by a desire not to irritate or alienate federal judges, who develop relationships with law professors and schools that pave the way for their best students to become a clerk.

His personal experience guides his work.

In 2019, Shatzman obtained a position with a municipal court judge in Washington, DC. But within two months, things quickly “deteriorated,” Shatzman said.

The day she passed the bar exam, the judge told her she was “very bossy,” just like his wife, she said. He appeared to be targeting her for abuse, she added. But Shatzman said his law school mentors told him to “stick it out” for a full year. Then came the coronavirus pandemic. She decided to work remotely, only to be fired by the judge in a phone call.

“So I contacted the courts in Washington and they told me there was nothing they could do, that HR doesn’t regulate Senate-confirmed judges,” Shatzman recalled.

Then the judge provided negative information about her during a background check, eliminating her chance to become a federal prosecutor, her dream job, she said.

Shatzman speaks from his experience during dozens of visits to law schools across the country. At the Georgetown University Law Center last winter, she stressed that her problems at work are not that unusual.

“What I always seek to emphasize is that my negative experience as a clerk is not uncommon, but it is rarely shared publicly due to the culture of silence and fear that surrounds the justice system – a culture of deified judges and unbelieving paralegals,” she said. . “It starts on law school campuses.”

During that Georgetown visit, she advised young lawyers considering clerking to contact a judge’s current and former clerks — and to consider it a “flashing red flag” if they choose not to respond . It’s important to ask frank questions, such as schedules, how judges provide feedback, and whether a judge has ever mistreated an employee or someone in their courtroom.

“These issues affect people in every courthouse across the country,” Shatzman said. “They are urgent and remain unanswered.”

Current and former judges told NPR that they believe an overwhelming majority of federal judges follow the rules and behave appropriately in the workplace. And the judiciary has taken some steps since the #MeToo movement exposed abuses by prominent men in the law, entertainment industry and media, among other sectors.

“The Judicial Branch has long had enforceable policies protecting its employees from discrimination, harassment and retaliation, consistent with federal employment discrimination laws applicable in the executive and legislative branches,” said Peter Kaplan, Door -spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the American Courts. in a written statement.

He added that courts have developed “clear and reliable lines of communication” with law schools for students who are articling, articling or working in the legal sector.

But Shatzman says she regularly hears about clerks who have resigned or been fired after troubles with their judicial superiors. And she said she’s heard that labor relations directors at some courthouses are actively discouraging clerks from filing complaints by telling them there aren’t enough clerks reporting hostile treatment or that behavior ‘a judge did not meet the standards of abusive conduct.

Transferring clerks to work for other judges after such complaints is not a real remedy, she added.

“It’s a Band-Aid for a bullet hole,” she said, because judges who aren’t singled out in public after complaints can simply hire more clerks who ignore possible bad treatments.

It’s unclear how many students will adopt the Legal Accountability Project’s database — which currently requires them to pay $20 to access it — but Shatzman says it’s a place to turn for information about an environment shrouded in secrecy.

Have you been harassed or intimidated by a federal judge or do you know someone who has? We want to hear about your experience. Your name will not be used without your consent and you can remain anonymous. Please contact NPR by by clicking on this link.

Copyright 2024 NPR