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News - July 1996

Judge who threw lesbians out of court accused of bias

On behalf of a lesbian thrown out of court when she sought protection from domestic abuse, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund June 20 filed a complaint of judicial misconduct against a judge in Wilmington, Delaware.

The judge threatened to jail the woman if she tried to return to court and dismissed her case as involving "funny relationships," ordering her and her former partner out of his courtroom. Both women were in court for a hearing while the city Solicitor's Office pursued a charge of aggravated harassment against the former partner.

"This judge would slam the doors of justice in the face of an abused woman, simply because the judge is prejudiced against lesbians and gay men," said David Buckel, staff attorney for Lambda, the national gay legal organization. "Gay people, like straight people, sometimes must resort to the courts to ensure their safety, and they have the right to equal access to those courts," he said.

The complaint, filed with the state's Court on the Judiciary, is the first known case in Delaware alleging judicial misconduct based on sexual orientation discrimination. To protect the confidentiality of the woman in this domestic abuse case, her name and that of the judge are not being released.

The woman, who has a young daughter, allegedly was stalked by her former partner, whom she also said made harassing phone calls to her employer, friends and family and slashed the tires of a friend's car. At a hearing in December, 1995, the judge rejected the case for involving two lesbians and domestic abuse, saying:

"You all have these funny relationships -- that's fine -- I have nothing to do with it, but don't bring it in here for me to try to decide, I don't know how to handle it. Now take this stuff out of here, I'm dismissing the case, you all control your business another way, get out of here. It's too much for me. Don't bring it back -- the next time you come back, I'll put somebody in jail."

The entire courtroom then erupted in laughter. " I have never been so humiliated, hurt, and disgusted as I was that day," the woman stated in her complaint.

"I am a human being, I am a tax-paying citizen, I am a proud black American, I am a proud lesbian American, and I am a mother with the duty to teach my daughter values I am not some alien from another planet with funny relationships,'" she said.

As often happens following incomplete actions against domestic abusers, the former partner later escalated the harassment and physically attacked the woman's new partner, the woman said. "I live in fear for myself and for my loved ones," she said.

Wilmington Chief Prosecutor Anthony Forcina, said, "I realize the victim was humiliated by what occurred that day. Regardless of sexual orientation, all people are entitled to have their day in court." Forcina added, "My office will support any victim of domestic violence."

Charges against the judge include violations of Delaware's Code of Judicial Conduct, which requires that judges act "in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary" and avoid actions that might be interpreted as bias against "personal characteristics," including sexual orientation.

The complaint calls for the court to enforce its Code of Judicial Conduct, investigate whether sexual orientation discrimination has harmed others attempting access to Delaware courts, require the judge to undergo sensitivity training with respect to lesbians and gay men in the judicial system, and censure or at least reprimand the judge for his misconduct.

Lambda Executive Director Kevin Cathcart called on Delaware and other states to step up efforts against anti-gay discrimination by judges.

"Court doors might have been open for this lesbian, and she might have found safety, if more judges were educated to not discriminate against lesbians and gay men. Non-discrimination prohibitions must be more than a footnote in state judiciary codes, as they now are for Delaware. Judicial education must aggressively address anti-gay discrimination," Cathcart said. "Just last month, the California State Court system took the additional step of funding a $25,000 study to determine the extent of sexual orientation bias in the courts," he added.

The American Bar Association (ABA) recommended in 1990, that all state codes on judicial conduct adopt non-discrimination prohibitions that include sexual orientation, which 25 states did, including Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, and West Virginia.

Delaware, instead, added a footnote to the commentary section of its code with a general nondiscrimination provision.

Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund is the nation's oldest and largest legal organization dedicated to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, and people with HIV/AIDS. It has headquarters in New York and regional offices in Chicago and Los Angeles, with plans to open an Atlanta office in 1997.


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