There are reports that Speaker Ralston and Lt. Governor Casey Cagle are creating a subcommittee to re-evaluate how any claims of sexual harassment in the Georgia legislature are handled. As a starting point, the leadership should be commended for taking some action in this current climate when they could easily sit quiet and do nothing. Any actual reports will still be sent to the ethics committee – which looking at what is going on around the country has a new meaning.
The lawyer in me however is greatly concerned about the due process for accused legislators who appear before the ethics committee. We cannot ignore the fact that partisan politics will come into play in any legislative committee made up of members from different sides of the aisle. We can see what the partisan fight looks like at the federal level. We have no reason to believe the same would not occur at the state level.
The current ethics committee is made under house and senate rules and has very limited power. There would likely have to be new legislation passed to do anything more than public reprimand or censure. Expulsion of a member requires being voted out during the next election, resignation by the member, or removal as a result of criminal conviction. Without any teeth to truly take action, the best this ethics committee can do is embarrass the legislator and bring light to the allegations.
Speaking of bringing light to sexual harassment allegations, the transparency of such committee is important to its success. Is the ethics committee be one that is subject to open to records or FOIA requests by citizens and the media who want to know the facts of the allegations? Can this committee hide behind the policies of the legislature that allow them to refuse to respond to such request? Having an ethics process that is not open to the public on the one hand can offer some protection for innocent legislators who are wrongly accused. Confidential committee hearings could also reduce the likelihood of unnecessary political witch hunts. On the other hand, an ethics committee without transparency does not gender the correct type of confidence from citizens to make the committee worth the announcement.
If I were in charge, I would take a more progressive and proactive action rather than reactive steps to respond to the current climate. I would set a policy or push legislation requiring mandatory training for legislators on sexual harassment. Legislators frankly need mandatory training in several areas like Georgia history, demographic facts about the State, constitutional law, a history of Georgia laws, as well as sexual harassment.* By requiring mandatory training the legislature can set the bar for other government agencies, Georgia corporations, and Georgia schools on how to properly address sexual harassment. Rather than waiting until someone has been harassed and an offense has occurred to hold a hearing, we should be working on how we prevent this behavior by teaching this subject beginning with school age children.
The decision to review the sexual harassment policies is a good first step. However, if we stop at a review and continue with the current ethics committee with little teeth, it is more ceremonial than effective. In light of the tipping point we see occurring around the country, adding sexual harassment training as a mandatory requirement should be the next consideration. However, two claps to the leadership for doing something.
* A smart legislator proposed HB758 in 2016. The bill required mandatory training for all legislators within the first year of being in office. Although the training did not include sexual harassment, the idea of mandatory training was scoffed at by the committee chair. The bi-partisan measure did not make it to the committee process. It would have been interesting to determine how legislators voted on the requirement for mandatory training. I wonder how many do not think they need to learn anything. But I digress.