While Donald Trump, as we have heard in the infamous Planet Hollywood tape, gloats about how his wealth and power enable him to violate women sexually without consequences and while he smears those, such as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who call him on this behavior, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts recently offered a stunning contrast in leadership when it comes to addressing issues of sexual harassment and worker rights.
In a year-end report on the state of the judiciary issued last Sunday, Roberts forthrightly acknowledged the existence and severity of sexual misconduct and harassment in the workplace and vowed to address this oppression in the agencies and offices that comprise the judicial branch of government, the workplace over which he is the effective leader. The “judicial branch is not immune,” he wrote, from what recent events have “illuminated,” namely “the depth of the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.”
As Ariane De Vogue reported for CNN, Roberts’ response to these recent events promised from the judiciary, he wrote, “a careful evaluation of whether its standards of conduct and its procedures for investigating and correcting inappropriate behavior are adequate to ensure an exemplary workplace for every judge and every court employee.” These recent events included the resignation of Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals in the wake of numerous allegations from clerks and staff of sexual misconduct.
Meanwhile, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s television show The Apprentice, is pursuing a defamation lawsuit against Trump comments he made ridiculing her accusations, made weeks before the 2016 Presidential election, that he sexually harassed her 2007. Nineteen women in total at the time stepped forward with allegations of sexual misconduct, only to see their allegations fall out of public hearing. As Margaret Hartmann has reported for the Daily Intelligencer, these women are now hoping that the same recent events inspiring Chief Justice Roberts’ response will earn their causes another hearing now that the environment has changed, altered by such actions as the #MeToo movement. “Let’s try round two,” said one of Trump’s accusers, Samantha Holvey, in Hartmann’s report. “The environment’s different, let’s try again.”
Trump and the White House have had little response other than complete denial. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders continues to confirm that the White House’s official position is that every single one of these women is lying.
Oh, well, there was that other response.
Let’s not forget about Trump’s notorious tweet about Senator Gillibrand, who had called on the GOP to investigate the ballooning number of sexual harassment allegations against Trump. In the December 12 tweet, Trump offered the sexually suggestive claim that Gillibrand used to beg for campaign contributions “and would do anything for them.” While Sanders roundly disputed any sexual current in Trump’s tweet, arguing that one would read it that way only “if your mind is in the gutter,” many critics agree that the tweet constitutes a sexual smear. Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox news personality whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Roger Ailes led to his resignation, confirmed this reading, as did Senator Elizabeth Warren, who characterized the tweet as Trump trying to “bully, intimidate, and slut-shame” Gillibrand.
Carlson insisted, “Sexual harassment is apolitical.”
While the leader of our nation’s executive branch, Donald Trump, doesn’t understand that, thankfully the effective leader of the judicial branch, Chief Justice Roberts, acts like he does, actively standing up in the name of both the law of our land and human decency.
In declaring unconditionally that people deserve “an exemplary workplace,” he is setting a standard for women’s rights and all people’s rights in the workplace, hopefully drawing attention to the lack of democracy and basic rights that characterize many American workplaces.
It should be noted that just as Trump has demonstrated little to no respect for women and their basic rights, he has also repeatedly acted against the rights of workers, in his own workplaces and those of others, actively undermining workers’ efforts to unionize and have a voice in the businesses he owns but also, as I have detailed elsewhere, paying his workers less than unionized workers in their respective industries but also creating less than humane working conditions.
So, seeing leadership in one of our branches of government that stands up for basically humane working and living conditions, for basic human dignity, is a big deal.
It’s an assertion of an ethos of government, a basic set of governing values, that offers an alternative to Trump’s values.
And this isn’t the first time Roberts has distinguished his leadership from Trump’s.
After Roberts’ 2015 decision saving Obamacare for the second time against right-wing onslaught, this time declaring that the subsidies were not just for those buying health insurance on the state exchanges but for those who used the federal exchanges as well, Trump declared Roberts a great disappointment to conservatives, asserting that Roberts had “no legal reason” for his decision and that he must be currying favor with liberal politicians.
In fact, Roberts did have a reason, as Stephen Collinson of CNN reported. Roberts wrote in his opinion, “Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.”
Put most plainly, Roberts sided with the people and did not act on a technicality. In interpreting the law, at least in this instance, Roberts acts with an ethos that understands laws are supposed to protect people and serve the general welfare, that the institutions we inhabit—legal, political, social, and otherwise—are supposed to support the interests and well-being of those living in those institutions, not undermine or work against the health and welfare of Americans.
Hopefully, our executive and legislative branches of government will learn a lesson from the leadership being exhibited in the judicial branch, such that our Congress and President will govern not just to achieve the very important ideal of an “exemplary workplace” but the crowning objective of creating the conditions for Americans to enjoy exemplary lives in the fullest sense.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.