Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. "No employer, not even a Senate-confirmed judge should be able to exert unchecked power over former clerk's lives, careers, and reputations, the way the former judge did to me." These are the words of Aliza Shatzman. She's a family law attorney in Washington, DC. When she graduated from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis back in 2019, she secured an opportunity that she fully expected to launch her career as a young attorney. Shatzman earned a position as a law clerk in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or more simply DC Superior Court.
Instead of discovering a challenging, relevant, and crucial experience for professional development, Shatzman says she encountered gender discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and misconduct. On March 17th of this year, Shatzman submitted detailed written testimony to a sub-committee of the house committee on the judiciary. Her goal to advocate for passage of HR 2827, the Judiciary Accountability Act of 2021.
It's a bill that Shatzman says can bring meaningful structural change to a system that she experienced as doing very little to protect law clerks and other court employees from discrimination and harassment perpetrated by Senate-confirmed judges. I spoke to Aliza Shatzman about her experience.
Aliza Shatzman: It definitely made me think a lot of aspects of the legal profession and the judiciary's ability to adjudicate harm. It definitely made me rethink whether I still even want to be an attorney after seeing the misconduct that judges are really able to get away with, but definitely made me want to use my law degree to push for changes in the judiciary and in our legal system. Right now, our laws are definitely set up to protect the powerful and to protect abusers, and I think they should not be.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Tell me about the decision acknowledging, recognizing the ways that it can feel the institutions are set up to protect those who perpetrate. Then how did you find the strength, the courage, the willingness to come forward and talk about and write about, testify about your experiences?
Aliza Shatzman: I think the best messengers on this issue are law clerks sharing their personal stories. I felt very empowered in February 2020 when I heard Olivia Warren's testimony before the house judiciary committee. After I experienced judicial harassment, misconduct, and retaliation, I knew that using my personal story to advocate for change was going to be important. It was definitely scary because I definitely experienced reputational harm and retaliation, but I felt it was important to share my personal story. The response has been very positive since I've begun speaking publicly and writing about this.
Other mistreated clerks have reached out to me to share their personal stories. I just hope that my story is one of empowerment that other clerks hear my story and feel empowered to speak out, to file complaints, to work to remove more abusers from the bench, and from other positions of power in other industries.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I want to tread a little carefully here because I don't love media interviews of any kind where the goal is to get people who've experienced harm to tell the salacious tidbits and experiences of that harm. I do want your point about the value of story sharing. To the extent that you feel it's valuable, can you share some of the story of your mistreatment? What was it that you were experiencing as a law clerk?
Aliza Shatzman: Of course. I think these stories should be shared. I hope my story can be helpful and powerful and empowering, and I'm happy to share it. Pretty much almost immediately after I started my clerkship, I began experiencing gender discrimination and harassment. The judge I clerked for would throw me out of the courtroom, tell me I made him uncomfortable, and he just felt more comfortable with my male co-clerk. He told me I was bossy, and aggressive, and nasty, and a disappointment.
The day I found out I passed the DC bar exam, a big day in my life, he called me into his inner chambers, he got in my face, and he told me, "You're bossy, and I know bossy, because my wife is bossy." I was just devastated, I cried every day on the walk to work, I cried myself to sleep at night. I just wanted to be reassigned to a different judge for the rest of the clerkship, but the courthouse where I clerked did not have an employee few resolution plan in place at the time that would've enabled me to be reassigned.
I had definitely begun to internalize the criticism, I felt that maybe I had done something wrong to provoke the judge's ire. Eventually, we transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. The judge basically ignored me for six weeks before he called me up and told me he was ending my clerkship early because I made him uncomfortable and lacked respect for him, but he didn't want to get into it. At that point, I reached out to HR for the DC Courts and they told me there was nothing they could do because HR doesn't regulate judges. They said to me, "Don't you know that you're an at-will employee?"
I reached out to my law school, and I found out that this judge had a history of misconduct and that I was not the first former clerk he had harassed. I drafted a judicial complaint to file with the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, that's the regulatory body for DC judges. I decided to wait to file it until I had a new job because I feared the judge would retaliate against me. I was job searching in the jurisdiction where he presided. One important thing about clerkships is that a judge's reference can make or break the next steps in the law clerk's career. I secured my dream job in the DC US Attorney's Office. I dreamed of being a federal prosecutor. I was two weeks into training when I got a couple of calls from leadership that altered the course of my life.
I was told the judge had given me a negative reference and made negative statements about me during my background investigation. I wouldn't be able to obtain a security clearance and therefore my job offer was being revoked. I went back to the judicial complaint that I drafted, added some sections about the negative reference, which I hadn't yet seen, but believed was gender-based, filed my judicial complaint, hired attorneys, and participated in the summer and fall of 2021 in the investigation into the now-former judge. We were several months into the investigation when I found out the judge was already under investigation for a variety of other misconduct and had already agreed to take a leave pending an investigation at the time he filed the negative reference with the DC US Attorney's Office about me.
The DCUS Attorney's Office or USAO was never alerted about the circumstances surrounding the negative reference, and it was only eight months later when pursuant to the terms of our settlement agreement, the judge made a clarifying statement to the USAO about me, but by then it was too late, I was pretty much blackballed from my dream job, and the message he sent to the USAO admitted no contrition for his misconduct and for destroying my career.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's at least two almost enraging moments in this story, certainly more than that. One, when you discover that there was some knowledge of prior misconduct before you were ever even assigned to being his clerk, and the second after you find that there are other concerns about misconduct. I guess I'm wondering a bit about the ways that there seems to be either an unwillingness and inability to share and make decisions based on what feels like awfully relevant information about this judge's behavior.
Aliza Shatzman: Unfortunately, I think that law schools are disincentivized to report misconduct by judges because they're incentivized to have as many students as possible secure clerkships. It is relevant to both their formal rankings and to informal beliefs about the law school's success. That was extremely disappointing to find out that law school officials were aware of the misconduct, and that the judge had harassed a second former law student from my law school. That was disappointing.
Then in terms of the judge's other misconduct that was also deeply frustrating, because I felt that at the very least, I should have been made aware at the time I filed my complaint as to why they were so interested in investigating it. When I first spoke with the judicial commission, they told me that my complaint interested them for several reasons. They wouldn't tell me what the reasons were. It was only later that I found out the reason was he was already under investigation.
I don't want to say that anytime someone files a complaint they should be alerted of other allegations against the abuser, but in these particular circumstances, he was under investigation for failure to perform his judicial duties, and yet he was making these outrageous allegations about me to the DC USAO. I thought I should have been alerted, and I thought the USAO should have been alerted as well.
I think that my story is not rare, my experience is not rare. I think that a lot of institutions are set up to protect misbehaving judges no matter how much misconduct they commit. These are the most powerful people in our profession, and lawyers are really taught from as early as law school to deify judges, not to question them, that they can do no wrong, and I think we really just need to dismantle that myth that judges are untouchable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay. The DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, that's the body that's meant to regulate DC judges. How did they handle your complaint?
Aliza Shatzman: The DC Commission that handled my complaints, they totally mishandled the misconduct investigation into my allegations and the allegations of the second gender discrimination complainant. A second former clerk who the judge had harassed a few years prior to myself. A few minutes into my first formal conversation with the commission, the special counsel said to me, "You must have done something wrong because the judge hired you in the first place." It was just downhill from there, they spent probably the first two hours of the questioning just needling me and asking me why I couldn't have done a better job of adapting to the judge's unique work style of harassing me.
I provided them with a list of witnesses I thought they should interview. They wouldn't tell me if they were interviewing any witnesses. I asked them to reach out to a third potential complainant. I was told the commission only speaks with people who are cooperating willingly, which is not true according to their rules and their statutes, but it was just exceedingly difficult. I felt deeply mistreated.
I know that my co-complainant felt mistreated as well. I had excellent attorneys representing me and a lot of law clerks just do not. It was a terrible experience. I don't regret filing my complaint. I don't regret participating in the investigation, but I've since spoken with a couple of folks from the DC Commission. I said that, "Your mishandling of this I believe we'll chill future complaints by DC law clerks against DC judges, because they'll feel like they won't be taken seriously, their allegations won't be robustly investigated." I think the DC Commission is in desperate need of reform and they are regulated by Congress. I've been speaking with congressional offices about reforms to the commission.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You make the point now a couple of times that this is not necessarily a rare experience, that there are other clerks experiencing similar kinds of harassment, discrimination, and mistreatment. Are there structural changes you see that can be brought that can make that experience different for young attorneys clerking?
Aliza Shatzman: The most important reform right now would be to pass the Judiciary Accountability Act, that's HR 4827, and S 2553 as a companion bill in the Senate. I submitted a statement for the record for the House Judiciary Sub-committee hearing to discuss this bill. The JAA is probably the most important reform, but I would consider it the floor and not the ceiling. The JAA has three major parts to its framework.
The first part is that it would finally protect judiciary employees, including law clerks and federal public defenders under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Currently, the federal judiciary is exempt from Title VII. The second part of the JAA is that it would create accountability for misconduct. It would clarify that the definition of judicial misconduct does include discrimination and retaliation. It would specify importantly that if a judge retires, resigns, or dies, the misconduct investigation won't cease. It would create both a standardized employee dispute resolution plan and a confidential reporting system.
The third part of the JAA is that it would require the judiciary to collect and publish data they have been notoriously unwilling to report any data at all. The data would cover workplace culture, the outcomes of judicial complaints, and diversity clerkship hiring. The JAA is excellent legislation. It's very important, but like I said, I consider it the floor and not the ceiling. The judiciary deeply opposes the JAA. They just do not want to be regulated. They do not want any oversights. The reason they don't want any oversight is because they know that misconduct is rampant and unaddressed.
I think it's also a question of cultural change in the legal community. It's about believing and affirming clerks. It's about encouraging a culture of reporting, encouraging people to bring their full selves to work. I was discouraged actively by many attorneys from reporting what happened to me. Then later after I had reported, from speaking publicly up until probably my statement became public, people were still trying to discourage me from speaking out against the former judge who harassed me and also on the larger issue of harassment in the judiciary.
It's a legal community. It's also legal employers right now, a judge's reference not only makes or breaks the law clerk's career but these references are accepted unquestioningly. In my case, the USAO looked at this outrageous negative reference that was totally different from everything else on my application and decided, "Yes, that checks out," and just tossed me aside. They didn't ask any follow-up questions of the judge or of me.
Legal employers should really stop accepting a judge's reference unquestioningly. Then the other institution is law schools. Law schools are currently part of the problem, but they can definitely be part of the solution. I know that my law school is working to make some changes. Law schools should be encouraging students to report misconduct. When alumni reach out to them to talk about their negative clerkship experiences, law schools should also be collecting and reporting data both through internal databases, where students can report on their negative experiences, and also some external data collection requirements I think are important as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Have you felt in your own case, in your own career, that there's been any measure of justice?
Aliza Shatzman: Definitely not through conventional legal channels. I did not sue the judge who harassed me. I did not achieve justice through the judicial complaint process, but I think that speaking publicly on this issue has been healing for me. To a certain extent, there's been some justice there, but it definitely made me understand why statutory changes are necessary so that law clerks can sue judges and seek damages under Title VII. That we can also reform the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act rules that make it very difficult for law clerks to file formal complaints against judges.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aliza Shatzman, DC family lawyer, and former DC Superior Court law clerk. Again, thank you so much for joining us and for sharing so much of your analysis and your story with us.
Aliza Shatzman: Thank you.
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