Feminist Court Watches: Trials and Tribulations

Women Face Gender Bias and a NOW Chapter Comes Under Fire

by Cindy Hanford, Chapter/State Development Staff Even without a legal department, the national NOW Action Center is flooded with phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mails from women with legal problems, and local chapters receive numerous requests for urgent legal assistance. The most common concerns involve family law (divorce, custody, child support, property, domestic violence), sexual harassment and other employment discrimination (based on sex, sexual orientation, age, race or disability), and mistreatment of sexual assault survivors.

Growing Gender Bias Against Mothers

Although women have always encountered gender bias in the court system, it appears to have increased since the advent of so-called father's rights groups, especially in the area of custody decisions.

Despite the perception that mothers always win custody cases, studies show that fathers who contest custody win sole or joint custody in 40 to 70 percent of cases. Some judges assume that men who ask for custody must therefore be good fathers or even that the mothers must be unfit-effectively creating a presumption against the mother. And many judges have a double standard for mothers and fathers, such as giving fathers credit for doing even a minimal amount of parenting or homemaking tasks while criticizing mothers if they dare to take any time at all for themselves or work outside the home.

Despite laws in at least 38 states stipulating that judges must consider domestic violence when making custody decisions, NOW hears numerous stories of judges awarding custody to abusers. NOW is trying to remedy this trend in several ways, including facilitating a national working group on the subject and assisting in writing and lobbying for the 1998 Violence Against Women Act, which includes several sections on custody issues and funding for judicial education programs (for more information, consult our web page at http://www.now.org/issues/violence/vawa/vawa1998.html).  This legislation will be reintroduced in the 106th Congress.

Chapter Court Watches Make a Difference

In addition to lobbying for public policy changes, many chapters have found court watches an effective tool for addressing the bias that women face in our legal system. NOW chapter activists are constantly frustrated that they do not have the resources to provide attorneys and, as non-attorneys, cannot and should not give legal advice. Court watches are a means for NOW activists to monitor, and eventually change, our legal system. By simply being a presence in the courtroom with NOW buttons or other designation, activists send the message to judges, attorneys and prosecutors that they are being watched specifically for how they treat women.

Kansas NOW State President Sharon Lockhart, founder of Citizens for Good Judges, knows their court watch program has made a difference: "People tell us when we are in the court room, they cannot believe it is the same judge."

Baltimore (Md.) NOW has been very successful in bringing to the public's attention how lenient judges have been in cases of domestic violence, even when spousal abuse escalated to murder. Connecticut NOW has formed a Family Justice NOW Task Force which will include a court watch project.  And an ad hoc meeting at the national conference last July resulted in a network of NOW activists working on this issue.

Ann Arbor-Washtenaw County NOW in Michigan provided the NOW Action Center with the chapter's blueprint for court watches, "How to Organize a Court Watch Project," which is available to chapter activists. That chapter concentrated its court watch on how courts respond to abortion clinic violence, but the blueprint is applicable to court watches on family law, sexual assault or employment discrimination.

The ultimate goal of any NOW court watch is to remove bad judges and prosecutors from office.  Wherever judges and prosecutors are elected, observations from court watches must be passed on to chapter and state Political Action Committees and publicized to voters; formal complaints can be filed against both appointed and elected court personnel. More importantly, activists can work to recruit good candidates to run for election or submit their names for appointment to these offices which have so much effect on women's lives. NOW chapters that do not have the volunteer time to have people attend court can gather information about judges from other court advocates-such as domestic violence programs-and then work for the removal of bad judges.

Chapter Hit With Harassing Suit

Said President Mindy Grantham, describing her chapter's court watch program: "Cincinnati NOW has been working to bring attention to flaws in the Domestic Relations Court system for several years. We began going to the press with individual cases in 1996, hoping to keep the press engaged and to educate the public about the need for reform. In particular, we were addressing issues surrounding gender bias and child custody when one of the parents is abusive."

In September 1996, the chapter spoke out when a judge overturned a restraining order and threatened a woman with jail for denying visitation to an ex-spouse she alleged was abusive. The woman contacted Cincinnati NOW and reported being beaten by her ex-husband when she tried to pick up her daughter after visitation. Even though the chapter did not use the ex-husband's name in press statements, he sued the NOW chapter and individual NOW activists for defamation.

"We feel that the suit was meant to harass and, most importantly, to quiet us," said Grantham. "We cannot address issues in Domestic Relations Court without going to the press about individual cases.  What we do is purely political speech. We are fighting for reform and pointing to reasons/examples of why reform is needed. More importantly, NOW chapters all across the country use the same strategy, and if we had lost this case many chapters would have suffered the consequences."

NOW encourages activists to pay a (usually) minimal fee for a rider on their homeowner's insurance that protects them while they are doing volunteer work. This extra insurance could provide legal assistance in the event of a lawsuit.

"As an organization, we cannot be silent about the gender bias women face in the courts," said NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy. "We must hold judges accountable for rulings that impact women and their families."

The suit was dismissed and Cincinnati NOW expects no further legal action. The judge threw out the case based on an Ohio law that a party cannot be sued for libel or slander if they act in the public interest and without malice. However, the chapter has incurred substantial bills in its defense.

If you would like to help protect our chapters' ability to speak out about judicial decisions, please send contributions to: Legal Defense Fund, Cincinnati NOW, P.O. Box 9422, Cincinnati, OH 45209.

Return to Winter 1999 newspaper / Return to NOW Home Page / Search NOW site / Catalog / Send mail to NOW / Join NOW