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Ruling Out Court Gender Bias

IT is a scene that could occur in any courthouse across the country: A male judge directs a comment to a male attorney, addressing him as ``Attorney Jones.'' But when the judge speaks to a female attorney, he adopts a more informal approach, calling her simply ``Ms. Smith.''

An unintentional and harmless slip? Perhaps. But according to proponents of gender equality, this kind of unequal treatment can subtly shade the perception and treatment of women in the courts.

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So pervasive is the problem that more than 30 states have conducted gender-bias studies of judicial systems in recent years. Although some states have issued reports, Massachusetts has become the first to publish a ``Court Conduct Handbook,'' offering specific guidelines for achieving equal treatment.

Subtitled ``Gender Equality in the Courts,'' the eight-page booklet is being distributed this month to 5,500 court employees, as well as to lawyers and bar association leaders. The Committee for Gender Equality, which produced the handbook, hopes it will become a national model.

``A lot of people unwittingly engage in sexually biased behavior and may not realize that what they're doing is inappropriate,'' says Maria Moynihan, primary author of the handbook. Formerly an assistant attorney general in Massachusetts and now an attorney with Ardiff & Morse in Danvers, Mass., Ms. Moynihan drew on her own experiences and the findings of a 1989 gender-bias study in writing the booklet.

The handbook is a deliberate study in brevity and understatement. As Ruth Abrams, associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and head of the Committee for Gender Equality, explains, ``If the rules are simple and it's not voluminous, it's easier for people to comply with. If you hand them an encyclopedia, nobody's going to read it.

``I think there's a lot of good will among court personnel everywhere,'' Justice Abrams continues. ``But there is confusion about what's appropriate and what isn't.''

The handbook leaves no doubt as to what is not appropriate. Terms of endearment such as honey, sweetie, and dear ``imply that women have lower status or less power,'' the text states. ``These terms can demean or offend women even if the speaker does not intend to do so.''

Similiarly, comments on physical appearance - body parts, hair style, dress style, and pregnancy - can put women at a disadvantage. Offering an example, the handbook points out that ``complimenting a female attorney on her appearance or drawing attention to her pregnancy while she is conducting business may undermine the way others perceive her.''

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The handbook also cautions against sexual, racial, and ethnic jokes and remarks, as well as comments, gestures, and touches that can make others uncomfortable.

Moynihan explains the need for guidelines like these by noting that in the past there were few women attorneys, and they tended not to go into court. Today, as the ranks of women lawyers grow, gender-based stereotypes have far-reaching effects.

The need for equal treatment also extends to female jurors, litigants, and crime victims, Abrams says. In addition, women who are rape victims and victims of domestic violence ``are sometimes subjected to unjust scrutiny because of the nature of the acts perpetrated against them,'' Moynihan observes.

On domestic abuse petitions, for example, she notes that it is not uncommon for a woman to be questioned ``as to whether the abuse had actually occurred, because she had no visible injuries.''

To ensure that women are fairly treated, the handbook advises, lawyers and judges must ``guard against any tendency to label women litigants as more troublesome or emotional, or to regard cases typically brought by women litigants ... as less important than any other type of case.''

Early response to the handbook has been encouraging, according to both Moynihan and Abrams. Gender-bias committees in several states have expressed interest in publishing similar guides. Several businesses have also asked for copies, raising the possibility that guidelines like these might serve as tools in eliminating gender bias in the corporate world as well.

Within the court system itself, Abrams sees hopeful signs, saying, ``As more women participate in the judicial system, it becomes more accustomed to them, and they become part of the mainstream in the administration of justice.''

For more information, contact the Committee for Gender Equality, Supreme Judicial Court, Two Center Plaza, Boston, MA 02108.

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