Aliza Shatzman is devoting herself to giving judges a hard time.

She spends a lot of time fielding complaints from law clerks, who tell her stories about bullying, gender discrimination and harassment. She said those complaints come from mostly young law school graduates at the start of their careers who have few places to turn inside the federal judiciary to report their concerns anonymously.

That's why she's created a database to gather such stories and warn students about hostile situations, before it's too late.

"The judiciary needs some more people to poke at it," Shatzman said. "There are far too many judges who are mistreating their clerks and we need to hold them accountable."

Some 30,000 employees who work for the federal courts are not covered by civil rights protections most other workers enjoy. Congress has proposed expanding their rights, but the judiciary for years has successfully resisted, citing concerns about its independence and the separation of powers. That means courts that hear employment discrimination and retaliation claims filed by workers are themselves exempt from such lawsuits.

A new legislative push to expand civil rights protections could come later this year, according to aides for Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and Norma Torres, D-Calif.

Until then, Shatzman's Legal Accountability Project has been surveying clerks to try to identify problematic situations. She recently launched a database that's gathered 1,000 such surveys from former clerks, who are encouraged to share anonymously the good, the bad and the ugly experiences they've had — even as some of the country's largest and most prominent law schools resist the effort.

"Law schools have not been held accountable for their role in these problems," Shatzman said. "They have been sending students to known or suspected harassers for decades."

Shatzman said she thinks some law schools are driven by the desire not to anger or alienate federal judges, who develop relationships with law professors and schools that pave the way for their top students to serve as clerks.

Her personal experience drives her work.

In 2019, Shatzman secured a clerkship with a judge in a municipal court in Washington, D.C. But within two months things rapidly went "downhill," Shatzman said.

On the day she passed the bar exam, the judge told her she was "very bossy," just like his wife, she said. He seemed to be singling her out for mistreatment, she added. But Shatzman said her mentors at law school told her to "stick it out" for a full year. Then, the coronavirus pandemic arrived. She moved to do remote work, only to be fired by the judge in a phone call.

"So I contacted the D.C. courts and they told me there was nothing they could do, HR doesn't regulate judges who are Senate confirmed," Shatzman recalled.

Then, the judge provided negative information about her during a background check — scuttling her chance to become a federal prosecutor, her dream job, she said.

Shatzman talks about her experience in dozens of visits to law schools across the nation. At Georgetown University Law Center last winter, she emphasized that her troubles on the job are not all that unusual.

"What I always seek to underscore is, my negative clerkship experience is not rare, but it is one that is rarely shared publicly due to the culture of silence and fear surrounding the judiciary — one of deifying judges and disbelieving law clerks," she said. "That starts on law school campuses."

During that visit at Georgetown, she advised young lawyers thinking about clerking to reach out to a judge's current and former clerks — and to consider it a "blinking red flag" if they choose not to respond. It's important to ask candid questions, such as what the hours are like, how judges provide feedback and whether a judge has ever mistreated an employee or someone in their courtroom.

"These issues affect people in every single courthouse across the country," Shatzman said. "They are urgent and unaddressed."

Current and former judges told NPR they believe an overwhelming majority of federal judges follow the rules and behave appropriately in the workplace. And the judiciary has taken some steps since the #MeToo movement exposed abuse by prominent men in the law, the entertainment industry and the media, among other sectors.

"The Judiciary has long-standing, enforceable policies protecting its employees against discrimination, harassment, and retaliation consistent with federal employment discrimination statutes applicable in the executive and legislative branches," said Peter Kaplan, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, in a written statement.

He added that the courts have developed "clear and trusted lines of communication" with law schools for students who intern, clerk or work in the judicial branch.

But Shatzman said she regularly hears about clerks who have quit or have been fired after troubles with their judicial bosses. And she said she hears that workforce relations directors in certain courthouses are actively dissuading clerks from filing complaints by telling them not enough clerks are reporting hostile treatment, or that a judge's behavior doesn't meet the standard for abusive conduct.

Transferring clerks to work for other judges after such complaints is not a real remedy, she added.

"It's a Band-Aid over a bullet hole," she said, because judges who are not singled out by name, in public, after complaints, can simply hire more clerks who are in the dark about possible mistreatment.

Shatzman said so far, more than 900 students have registered for the Legal Accountability Project database — which currently requires them to pay $20 to access. Shatzman said it can be a place to turn for information about a setting that's been shrouded in secrecy.

Were you harassed or bullied by a federal judge or do you know someone who was? We want to hear about your experience. Your name will not be used without your consent, and you can remain anonymous. Please contact NPR by clicking this link.

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