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. Consistent with this commitment to inclusion of programs addressing bias, the Committee reviewed recent amendments to the ABA's Model Rule for Minimum Continuing Legal Education. These amendments added gender equity and disability access to the existing subjects of racial and ethnic diversity and elimination of bias as subjects to be addressed through mandatory continuing legal education requirements. Based on these changes, the Committee recommended amendments to Rule 3(a) of the North Dakota Rules for Continuing Legal Education to specifically identify programs in these subject areas as course-work that would satisfy the current mandatory ethics education requirement that lawyers must fulfill. The proposed amendments were recently adopted by the Supreme Court.
The Committee has reviewed Gender Fairness in the Courts: Action in the New Millennium with the long-term objective of developing an action plan to ensure that progress on gender-related issues continues within the judiciary. The Committee will continue to use the New Millennium Manual as a touchstone for development of an institutionalization plan. A key element in this effort is the development of an appropriate mechanism to evaluate whether the judicial system has achieved progress on issues identified in the North Dakota Commission's Final Report. After reviewing various evaluation methods outlined in the New Millennium Manual and informed by discussions at the last national Gender Fairness Workshop, the Committee concluded a series of focus group discussions would be the most effective way of gauging progress in our state. The Committee requested, and was granted, funds to undertake a focus group process during the summer and fall of 2005. This is an especially appropriate time to conduct such an effort as 2006 will mark the 10 year anniversary of the Final Report. Results of the focus group process will be compiled and will form the basis of a seminar on gender bias issues in 2006.
The informal complaint process established by Supreme Court rule continues to provide a means of addressing complaints, bias-related and otherwise, about judicial officers and employees of the judicial system. However, the Committee continues to monitor the activities of the informal process and discuss possible ways of increasing awareness of the process. The Committee has emphasized the importance of ensuring that information concerning the process is widely and consistently made available to judicial system employees
As previously reported, the Committee had developed a guide to gender fair court proceedings for use by judges and judicial referees. The Committee has now developed and submitted to the Supreme Court a shorter but similar guide, or "handbook", for use by court personnel, such as clerks of court, who have direct contact with the public, lawyers, and judges. The handbook is intended to raise awareness among court employees of the dynamics of bias and the boundaries of permissible conduct. Additionally, it would provide information to employees regarding resources available to them in resolving problems of inappropriate conduct. The proposed handbook has been approved by the Supreme Court.
The Committee has also reviewed relevant provisions in our Code of Judicial Conduct to determine whether improvements could be made with respect to bias issues. This effort was informed in part by recommendations made by the American Judicature Society to the ABA Joint Commission to Evaluate the ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct. Among those recommendations was the request that current model canon language regarding prohibitions against sexual harassment, which is set out in commentary, should be elevated to the prominence of a black-letter canon. The Committee concluded this recommendation was worthy of consideration and submitted draft amendments to Canon 3B and C of the our Code of Judicial Conduct to the judicial system's Judiciary Standards Committee. That Committee is charged by Supreme Court rule with reviewing any changes to the Code of Judicial Conduct. The draft amendments would add prohibitions against sexual harassment to the black-letter canons governing the administrative and adjudicative responsibilities of judges. The Judiciary Standards Committee reviewed the proposed amendments at its meeting on October 8 and approved them for submission to the Supreme Court.
The Judicial Improvement Program established by Supreme Court rule recently completed its first round of surveys. The surveys were distributed to lawyers and court personnel appearing before and working with judges and solicited information about such matters as demeanor, fairness, and time and judicial management skills. The survey results were then compiled by an outside entity and reviewed with the subject judge by a person of the judge's choice. In response to a recommendation by the Committee, a question concerning whether the subject judge has manifested any perceptible kind of bias was included in the survey.
As previously reported, the Supreme Court, following a request from the Committee, applied for and received STOP grant funding to develop a domestic violence benchbook. The benchbook has been completed and distributed to judges and judicial referees. A short education program based on the benchbook was provided at our Judicial Conference last fall. Recently, a state domestic violence advocacy group applied for and received STOP grant funds to underwrite a series of educational programs based on the benchbook for judges, referees, and court personnel. The Supreme Court has agreed to work in partnership with the advocacy group to develop the curriculum and conduct the programs.
The Committee continues to work with the State Bar Association regarding implementation of law firm self-audit for gender equity. The self-audit provides a mechanism for law firms to self-examine gender fairness in their workplaces.
The Committee also continues its collaborative efforts with other entities, including state
groups on women's issues, the Law School, and other judicial system advisory groups.