March 23, 2022

Report Details Expansion of Ombuds-Like Program Within Federal Court System

Last week two federal judges testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet subcommittee and provided an update on efforts to create a safe and respectful workplace for court workers. Their written testimony, the two judges⁠—both members of the Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group⁠—detailed a range of reforms, including the implementation of a nation-wide program that is very similar to an Organizational Ombuds.

Federal court employees are covered by the court system's internal policies because, as a separate branch of government, the federal courts exempt from the nation's laws prohibiting workplace discrimination and retaliation. Chief Justice John Roberts has lead reforms efforts to address complaints about how allegations of misconduct in the courts have been mishandled for years.

Attached to the judges' statement is a report published November 2021 in the Northwestern University Law Review that provides more information about the Ombuds-like program now in place:
2. Creation of the Office of Judicial Integrity and Directors of Workplace Relations

The most frequent recommendation from current and former employees “was for a clearly identifiable and independent person of high stature to whom they could report misconduct and discuss other workplace concerns.” Key to this position, employees noted, was that it be outside of the supervisory chain of command. And yet, employees did not favor reporting to an entity or person outside the judiciary. Two of the most significant changes in response to these comments were the AO's establishment of the Office of Judicial Integrity, and the Ninth Circuit Committee's appointment of the first Director of Workplace Relations. Other circuits soon adopted this approach, and now there is a director (or analogous role) for every circuit.

The national Office of Judicial Integrity, headed by the national Judicial Integrity Officer, serves as an independent resource outside of the courts' traditional chain of command. It provides confidential help, information, referral, and guidance in complaint options to address workplace harassment, abusive conduct, or other misconduct. This office also monitors recurring workplace issues to identify trends and conduct systemic reviews.

Modeled in part after an organizational ombudsman, each Director of Workplace Relations is an independent circuit-wide position that acts as a confidential resource within the circuit. They confidentially talk through issues with employees (including clerks, supervisors, managers, court unit executives, and judges), provide information about policies and procedures, set out options for early-stage resolution and the complaint process, offer guidance, receive reports of workplace issues, and monitor the workplace environment for trends and patterns.

Directors serve all court units within a circuit--court of appeals, district and bankruptcy courts, probation and pretrial offices, and federal public defender offices. They do not report directly to any chief judges or judges, nor do they report to other court unit supervisory personnel such as the clerk of court, chief probation or pretrial officer, or chief federal public defender. Instead, directors report to the Circuit Executive yet maintain considerable autonomy.

The Directors of Workplace Relations and the Judicial Integrity Officer bring relevant and wide-ranging experience to their roles with backgrounds as former federal circuit court law clerks, Title IX officers, mediators, and EEOC attorneys. One of the benefits of this diverse collective experience is that it provides the judiciary with an internal group of experts who can see the workplace from a bird's eye view and who are well positioned to collaboratively assess trends and feedback for additional improvements to the judiciary's policies, processes, and structures for addressing workplace issues. The Judicial Integrity Officer and directors from across the nation serve on the national Directors of Workplace Relations Advisory Group and meet frequently to discuss emerging issues, share information, and develop best practices. They draw on direct and indirect feedback to continue improving: it is an iterative process of making changes, assessing their effectiveness, adjusting as necessary, and disseminating information to national, circuit, and local court unit leadership as appropriate.

The creation of these new positions not only addresses one of the top employee requests, but it also serves to mitigate at least two other risk factors identified by the EEOC--decentralization and isolation. Because these individuals are available to employees in all court units, they function as centralized and uniform resources for employees to learn about their rights and options without fear that their local leadership will be informed of their confidential conversations. to identify institutional trends.
(116 Nw. U.L. Rev. Online 275 at pp. 236-237, internal citations omitted.)
Jill Langley was appointed the first Judicial Integrity Officer in December 2019. Michael Henry took over the position in January 2021. (U.S. Courts News; Subcommittee Written Testimony; Office of Judicial Integrity.)

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