How the Legal System Silences Women's Voices

June 18, 2018

     Women's voices have been having a cultural moment.  From #metoo to #timesup, many of us feel like we're finally being heard.  Perhaps our voices might matter and bring about change.  For me, as a domestic abuse and rape survivor, my emotions have swung between heady elation and deep sorrow at the commonalities of our experiences.  I've also been viewing this all through the lens of someone who is currently battling with the legal system.  

 

 

 

 

     This last Monday I appeared before a Judge in Ramsey County as part of an ongoing custody battle.  I’m still reeling.  Because, in a world where we are pushing to have our voices heard, it appears the courtroom has not yet caught up.  Below is the text of a formal complaint I filed with the State.

 

Letter;

I am writing to lodge a formal complaint against my treatment in the courtroom of Judge William Leary on Monday, June 11th, 2018.

 

I was appearing in his courtroom regarding an ongoing custody matter.  In past appearances - two - in Judge Leary’s courtroom I had noticed and remarked upon an attitude of extreme sexism emanating from the Judge.  In both instances, when he sat he angled his body away from myself and my lawyer, the only two women in the room, and addressed all his questions to opposing counsel, a male lawyer.  I am the petitioner, but he often directed few, if any, questions to my lawyer.  Our presence in the courtroom was blatantly disregarded in favor of the man.  

 

During the most recent appearance, the Judge entered and proceeded to get a major fact of our case wrong.  Several times, he stated that I had taken my son out of the state to live without the court’s permission.  This is not, in fact the case.  Given that this would have been a serious offense if I had done so, I felt that I needed to speak up and correct him.  I believe that my interruption influenced his later behavior, as he did not respond well to being informed that he was mistaken.  He also stated that he had not had time to read through or review every detail of the case.  I was under the impression that this was his job.  

 

He had the lawyers present quickly run through the clauses that had been discussed and agreed upon.  They were not read in detail.  He then asked me to agree, on the record, to be legally bound by these clauses.  I didn’t understand what was happening.  I am not a lawyer, and I wasn’t sure what to say or do.  So I refused to agree.  I asked him to explain, I said that I did not understand.  And he kept pushing me, his voice rising and his tone growing harsher, “Do you agree?” My response, “I don’t understand what I’m being asked to agree to.” 

 

This is a reasonable thing, in my opinion, to request an explanation of something that will legally bind you in the future.  I was not rude, nor did I swear.  But I refused to give into his pressure to just agree.  Pressure that I believe was extremely unprofessional, not to mention unethical.  If someone has stated, repeatedly, in a courtroom that they do not understand what is happening, has asked for an explanation, and will not agree until they have an understanding, how is it appropriate for a judge to continue to pressure them to just go along? 

 

At that point, he stood up and said he was declaring a ten minutes recess and told my lawyer to, “Straighten out your client,” and left the room.  I was stunned.  And I have no doubt that this incident influenced his later decisions in his courtroom.  He displayed a childish and unprofessional, in my opinion, reaction to a petitioner in his courtroom. I just wanted to understand what I was agreeing to.  

 

And what if I had agree to be bound by something I didn’t understand? If I had then later violated any of these clauses, and been found in contempt of court, my agreement to them would have been held against me.  

 

This is horrific.  I am left to wonder if he has done this to other women who might not have had the strength to stand up to him.  How many women has he attempted to browbeat in his court?  Given this behavior, it might be wise to review his record.  

 

Witnesses to this behavior include the court reporter, my lawyer, Ms. NAME REDACTED and opposing counsel, Mr. NAME REDACTED.  Given that Mr. NAME REDACTED’s client directly benefited from the judge’s behavior, I question his impartiality as a witness.  I do not remember if Judge Leary went off record for this part of the session, which he did at a later time.      

 

While I am aware that he has declared his retirement, I believe that it should be hastened and pushed through at all speed.  I am deeply worried that I might have to appear in front of him again, and question whether or not the rest of my case was heard and considered from an unbiased standpoint after his outburst.  His behavior during our session was appalling, and that of an abusive bully.  As a survivor of domestic abuse, it was massively triggering and created a hostile environment for me in his courtroom.  Note that this was just a simple parenting plan discussion, not litigation.  As a domestic abuse survivor, which he would know if he had read any of our affidavits, it was massively triggering and has caused great emotional distress.  

 

I will be posting this letter publicly on my blog and elsewhere.  I look forward to hearing how you plan on taking action.  While he is retiring, if this behavior is not publicly condemned and put in check, others in the legal system may think that they are free to act in the same manner.  To use their position to browbeat and bully women who appear before them and to treat us as if we are not equal in the eyes of the law.   

 

I do not understand why this behavior is acceptable in a court of law and permissible by a representative of the State of Minnesota.

 

End letter

 

     I am still processing everything that happened that day.  The Judge's obvious dislike of a woman who didn't simply go along.  My firm belief that it influenced some of his later decisions.  And I'm thinking through the deeper implications. 

 

     What if I’d been a woman of color, already demoralized and beaten down by this system? What if I hadn’t been able to play respectability politics to the extent that I can - with my diamond earrings, expensive suit and fancy heels? I was leaning on every ounce of my white privilege in that courtroom, and I shudder to think of how the situation might have gone for a woman without my resources.  

 

     Which is why I’m raising my voice, mailed that letter to the State’s Board on Judicial Standards, and am taking the risk of angering a judge who has already shown he will hold it against me by writing this piece.  It’s not enough for our voices to be heard through hashtags and articles.  They must be heard and given equal weight in the courts of law where so much of our lives are still decided for us by men.  

 

     If you, too, have encountered sexism in the legal system, please speak up.  Let me know.  Add comments on my Facebook post and elsewhere.  I am collecting specific examples.  If we do not agitate to bring about change, our lives and our children's lives will continue to suffer. 

 

xoxo,

Dena

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