Court Gender Fairness Task Force issues findings and recommendations

Nov. 27, 2002

A four-year study of attitudes in the Mississippi court system has concluded that gender bias is not a widespread problem.

But the Gender Fairness Task Force also said that the lingering perception of some vestiges of bias should be addressed by the Supreme Court, the Mississippi Bar and the Mississippi Judicial College.

The Task Force on Gender Fairness submitted its final report to the Mississippi Supreme Court this week. The report stated that "strong majorities agree that on the whole, the Mississippi court system treats men and women fairly."

The report said, "Most Mississippians have neither witnessed nor heard about incidents of gender bias in the court system, but, among those who have, most believe that the bias influenced the outcome of the case. Roughly two-thirds of those surveyed reported no experience, personal or vicarious, with gender bias in the judicial system. About one-third of them answered affirmatively, though, indicating that they acknowledged at least an occasional unfairness present in the legal system. Importantly, of this one-third, almost 90 percent perceived that the biased behavior unfairly influenced the outcome of the case."

Attorney Amy Whitten, co-chair of the task force, said the survey found "unintentional insensitivity to gender issues....A lot of what is there is indicative of some attitudes that hopefully society has begun to grow out of as women occupy a stronger place in the judicial system. I think the fact that there are as many people who are concerned about the issue is great progress."

The report said that "a substantial plurality of Mississippians believes that the gender unfairness in the court system is limited and isolated. Furthermore, respondents believed that the bias cut both ways, affecting both men and women. To be sure, there were differences. For example, significantly more respondents claimed 'widespread and subtle' biases directed toward women as opposed to men. In the main, however, what stood out about the results was their remarkable parity: women and men seem predisposed to feel that where problems existed, they existed for both."

Other survey findings include:

The surveys were conducted by the Social Science Research Laboratory at the University of Mississippi. Political Science Professor John W. Winkle III oversaw the work. The final phase of the task force's work was a public opinion survey of 611 Mississippi residents during late June and early July 2002. Most had served jury duty, while some had been parties to a lawsuit, victims of crime or witnesses in court.

Task Force Co-Chair Deanne M. Mosley, a special assistant attorney general, said, "The Task Force has surveyed judges, attorneys, court personnel, jurors, and the public, conducted statewide public hearings, and solicited written comments. Based upon our study and investigation, we have concluded that gender bias in the Mississippi judicial system is low and non-systemic. However, since judicial systems must function with the public's trust and confidence, it is important that any perceptions of unfairness toward both men and women be adequately addressed. We believe that the recommendations that we have submitted to the Supreme Court would reduce and eliminate such unfairness."

The Mississippi Supreme Court in April 2002 revised the Code of Judicial Conduct to include anti-bias language governing judges, staff and lawyers who appear before them.

The Code of Judicial Conduct prohibits bias or prejudice "based upon race, gender, religion, national origin, disability, age, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status." The entire code was rewritten to make all references gender-neutral.

The Gender Fairness Task Force in its recommendations asked that the Supreme Court promote public awareness of its anti-bias policy and publish a guide for judges and court personnel on appropriate use of gender neutral communications.

Other recommendations include:

Former Lt. Gov. Evelyn Gandy of Hattiesburg, honorary chair of the Gender Fairness Task Force, said, "Im very pleased with the final report of the task force and feel very grateful to all of the members who served. We also thank the many persons who participated in the surveys and in the public hearings. We look forward to the response from the Supreme Court concerning the recommendations and we look forward to working with the Judicial College in disseminating this information to our judges and others involved in the judicial system."

Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin L. Pittman said he appreciates the work of former Lt. Gov. Gandy and the 50-member task force.

Pittman said, "I'm very pleased that they found no system prejudice and that the gender prejudice that was noted was isolated cases of individuals' actions and not a court action. They call to mind that we do need to be very professional not only in our conduct but in our verbiage and treat all litigants and lawyers with fairness and courtesy."

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MEDIA CONTACT:   Beverly Pettigrew Kraft
Administrative Office of Courts
601-354-7452