The North Dakota Gender Fairness Implementation Committee continues to monitor and assist in developing appropriate education programs for judges, lawyers, and court personnel based on recommendations contained in the Final Report of the North Dakota Commission on Gender Fairness in the Courts. "Justice for Immigrants" was presented to all North Dakota Judges on May 21, 2003, at the North Dakota Judicial Institute by Joanne Moore, Director, Washington State Office of Public Defense, and Grace Huang, Public Policy Coordinator, Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
The Committee continues its review of Gender Fairness in the Courts: Action in the New Millennium, a publication of the National Judicial Education Program. The objective of the review has been to develop the framework for an action plan to ensure that progress on gender-related issues continues within the judiciary. The Committee has specifically discussed items identified in the publication Key Components to Achieve & Secure Gender Fairness in the Courts, and will continue to do so. With respect to the Key Components as possible methods for institutionalizing progress on gender issues within the judiciary, the Committee has reached several conclusions and observations.
An informal complaint process has been established by Supreme Court rule which provides a means of addressing complaints, bias-related and otherwise, about judicial officers and employees of the judicial system. The Committee has monitored the activities of the informal process and is discussing possible ways of increasing awareness of the process. A point of concern is the tension that exists between the need to maintain confidentiality, yet provide sufficient information through the process to aid the subjects of complaints in improving performance and attitudes.
The Committee had previously developed a guide to gender fair court proceedings for use by judges and judicial referees. The Committee has underscored the importance of providing the guide to newly elected or appointed judges and referees as part of their general orientation program. The Committee will also review the guide to determine how it might be modified, or a different version developed, to be more useful to court personnel such as clerks of court, who have direct contact with the public, lawyers, and judges.
The Committee has reviewed the components of the Judicial Improvement Program recently established by Supreme Court rule. The program will involve distribution of surveys to lawyers and court personnel appearing before and working with judges to solicit information about such matters as demeanor, fairness, and time and judicial management skills. The Committee has recommended inclusion in the surveys of a question concerning whether the subject judge has manifested any perceptible kind of bias.
The Committee has discussed methods of data collection within the judicial system and will solicit additional information to determine the ability to collect information in a way that assists in monitoring potential gender bias in court process or proceedings.
The Committee has referred a number of issues and recommendations to other entities both within and without the judiciary and has been fortunate in its collaborative efforts with these entities, including state advocacy groups on women's issues, the state bar association, the Law School, and other judicial system advisory groups. These efforts have been detailed in the Committee's previous reports.
The Committee has discussed the importance of access to qualified interpreters, particularly in light of cultural constraints relating to gender roles which may compromise neutral interpretation. The Committee forwarded this issue to the Chief Justice for consideration and the matter was subsequently assigned to the Court Services Administration Committee for review. The Committee will soon consider draft rule amendments addressing qualifications for court interpreters. Additionally, at the recommendation of the Committee a presentation on the use of interpreters and some of the pitfalls sometimes associated with interpreter services was given at the North Dakota Judicial Institute on May 20, 2003.
The Committee had reviewed statutes governing the process for obtaining domestic violence protection orders and concluded there may be a need to clarify language concerning the definition of domestic violence. This matter was conveyed to representatives of the domestic violence advocacy community for possible development of legislative proposals. Unfortunately, this past legislative session was a very combative one with respect to budget issues, and the environment was not conducive to a review of these kinds of issue. The matter has been reserved for future consideration. The Committee also reviewed the impact of domestic violence in the context of possible mediation in family law cases. The Committee concluded that applicable statutes and court rules should be modified to exclude from possible mediation those cases in which domestic violence is involved. This issue was forwarded to our Joint Committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution for consideration and it is anticipated that it will be considered at an upcoming meeting.
The Supreme Court, following a request from the Committee, applied for and received STOP grant funding to develop a domestic violence benchbook. Similar to those developed in other jurisdictions, the benchbook will be a valuable resource tool for judges, judicial referees, and court personnel in handling domestic violence cases. With the able assistance of the Assistant Dean of the Law School, drafting has been completed and the benchbook has been printed and is being assembled for distribution. The benchbook will be distributed and introduced to judges and judicial referees during an educational segment of our November Judicial Conference.
The Committee recently submitted several gender-related questions for inclusion in a State Bar Association of North Dakota survey of the lawyers in the state. Those questions were included and results from the recently completed survey will be reviewed by the Committee at future meetings. The survey questions and results are closely related to a proposal previously submitted by the Committee to the Board of Governors of the State Bar Association regarding a project entitled Self-Audit for Gender Equity. The self-audit provides a mechanism for law firms to self-examine gender fairness in their workplaces. This project would be patterned after Minnesota's Self-Audit for Gender Equity project. On March 8, 2003, the Board of Governors voted to proceed with this project and to 1) provide self-audit materials and support to large law firms in the state, 2) publicly recognize law firms that agree to undertake voluntary self-assessment programs, and 3) conduct annual CLE programs to raise awareness of gender fairness in the legal profession.
At its most recent meeting on October 17, the Committee concluded its initial review of Gender Fairness in the Courts: Action in the New Millennium. The Committee also reviewed two areas of suggested future activity. Following a discussion of the importance of all court staff understanding the dynamics of domestic violence, the Committee concluded it may be worthwhile to consider training programs, perhaps regionally based, on a variety of matters related to domestic violence. Such a program has been provided to clerk staff, court reporters, other court staff, and judges in the Northeast Central judicial district. The program, conducted by staff of the Community Violence Intervention Center, was very well-received. The Committee discussed the possibility of an application by the judiciary for STOP Grant funds to support similar programs in the coming year. The second issue discussed by the Committee concerned the importance of fair, complete, and objective reports and recommendations by custody investigators appointed by the courts. To that end, the Committee discussed the possibility of developing a standardized format for custody investigator reports. Such a standardized report format would assist in ensuring that custody investigators consistently address factors courts must consider in custody determinations and may aid in minimizing any tendency to allow bias of any kind to color the investigator's recommendations or report. The Committee agreed a letter should be initially submitted to the Council of Presiding Judges identifying the possible impact of bias, whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, or economic status, on the work done by custody investigators for the courts. The Committee is aware as well that the State Bar Association may soon provide regular custody investigator training. The Committee agreed a letter should be submitted to the President of the Association and its Executive Director underscoring the importance of including in the training programs components that address the possible impact of bias on custody investigator services.
In the coming year the Committee will continue consideration of methods for ensuring progress on gender-related issues continues in the judicial system and will also consider possible ways of evaluating how progress is achieved and the nature of its impact.