Sleazy Courtroom Tactics Hit Harassment Cases

The first time millions of people witnessed this cut-throat strategy in a sexual harassment context was in 1991. Anita Hill sat before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee. She spoke quietly about the humiliation and degradation she experienced at the hands of her former boss, Clarence Thomas.

Her testimony struck a chord that resonated in the hearts and minds of women across the country.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and his cronies on the committee went on the attack. They questioned Hill's sanity and integrity, implying that she either imagined Thomas' advances or was a promiscuous woman who got what she was looking for. The senators employed the same vicious tactics used for years by unscrupulous criminal defense lawyers determined to get rapists off by attacking rape survivors both on and off the stand.

The so-called "nuts or sluts" strategy had hit Capitol Hill.

Public outrage followed the attacks against Anita Hill and forever changed the way we deal with sexual harassment. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1991 which, because of NOW's intervention and advocacy, for the first time gave women and people of color the right to a trial by jury and the right to receive damages in employment discrimination cases under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The record number of women elected to Congress in 1992 were in part the result of women's response to Hill's treatment by the Senate.

Unfortunately, there was a negative impact as well. With the stakes raised, defense lawyers had a great incentive to go on the offensive with vicious personal attacks against women plaintiffs in courtrooms throughout the country. And the pattern continues today.

Lawyers for Mitsubishi Motors stated publicly that they intended to defend their client by attacking women who charged sexual harassment at the company's Normal, Ill., plant. Their plan included questioning women about abortions and what the company described as the women's sexual promiscuity. In response to the lawyers' plan, NOW named Mitsubishi a "Merchant of Shame" in our Women-Friendly Workplace Campaign. The largest sexual harassment suit ever filed by the EEOC is still pending against Mitsubishi. Twenty-seven women settled a private suit; two women's claims are pending.

Even President Clinton's lawyer, Bob Bennett, suggested that he would attack Paula Jones by delving into her sexual history. NOW issued a blistering public statement condemning Bennett's threats.

Despite some public criticism for admonishing Bennett, NOW President Patricia Ireland said the organization "will not play politics with women's lives." Ireland argues that the merits of the claims against Clinton are important, but that the larger question is how women who battle sexual harassment are treated. While Jones' motives for suing the president may be questionable, "Her allegations must be taken seriously. Both she and the president deserve their day in court," Ireland said.

Proponents of the tactic claim that it is only fair to examine the sexual history of a woman who alleges sexual harassment. Not so, says Ireland. "We have a warning for attorneys who attempt to intimidate sexual harassment plaintiffs with personal attacks: We're going to take that weapon out of your arsenal. Just as feminists worked to pass rape shield laws, we will not rest until similar protections are in place for women who file sexual harassment complaints."

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