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Alaska federal judge resigns after investigators say he created a hostile workplace

Alaska lawyer Joshua Kindred speaks during a judicial nomination hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in Washington, U.S. December 4, 2019.
U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary
via Reuters
Alaska lawyer Joshua Kindred speaks during a judicial nomination hearing at the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in Washington, U.S. December 4, 2019.

A federal judge in Alaska resigned this week after investigators concluded he created a hostile work environment by sending crude messages to employees, engaging in sexual contact with a former law clerk and lying to colleagues about that relationship.

Joshua Kindred, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump and served just four years on the bench, did not provide a reason for leaving the lifetime-tenured job in a resignation letter.

But his move came after the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit found he had repeatedly lied and violated canons that require judges to maintain high standards of conduct and “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Investigators interviewed 21 witnesses, including nearly all of his current and former law clerks, as well as 700 pages of text messages. Their report cited a text where the judge told law clerks, “who gives a f*** about ethics, we need to get you paid.” In another, he mused about punching multiple Supreme Court justices and bringing Patron, heroin and whip-its to a party in his chambers.

“Judge Kindred’s conduct demonstrates that, for the most part, he was entirely unaware of his problematic behavior, which resulted in at least three law clerks suffering in silence at various points in time,” the Judicial Council wrote in a 30-page order and certification. “The Council is not confident that Judge Kindred fully understands the gravity of his conduct even at this juncture.”

The judiciary is now considering next steps, including whether to refer Kindred to Congress for possible impeachment. As a practical matter, that could bar him from holding future federal elected office or taking other jobs with the federal government.

In a written response to investigators, the judge said he “failed to exercise appropriate boundaries and crossed lines I should not have crossed, particularly as it relates to the overarching trend of me treating employees as friends and allowing my personal and professional struggles to become topics of conversation.”

Kindred also said he was not the “aggressor” in two sexual encounters with a former clerk in October 2022. In the first incident, the judge kissed her and grabbed her buttocks, the clerk said. In the second, she went into the judge’s temporary apartment, and he grabbed her. “I just remember thinking like there’s nothing I can do about this, like this is about to happen,” the clerk told investigators.

Mary Murguia, the chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, said the court takes misconduct allegations seriously.

“The judiciary is entrusted to self-govern and in doing so, must hold its federal judges to the highest standards of integrity and impartiality,” she said in a written statement. “In all respects, this was as serious and sensitive matter.”

In a statement to NPR, a spokesperson for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said the judiciary has a "robust system in place that works to respond effectively to workplace misconduct. In recent years the branch has taken steps to further ensure that law clerks and other Judiciary employees are treated with dignity and respect by strengthening processes for the redress of wrongful conduct and heightening accountability."

Advocates for law clerks emphasized the stark power differential between clerks, usually new law school graduates, and the judges whose recommendations can make or break their careers.

Olivia Warren, a North Carolina criminal defense lawyer with Thomas, Ferguson & Beskind who blew the whistle on a different federal judge years ago, said the system does not do enough to protect clerks.

“I think that this is another day of shame, shame, shame on the judiciary,” Warren said. “To the extent that the judiciary says that their reporting mechanisms and the changes they’ve made are working, there is nothing in this report that suggests that law clerks actually reported.”

In fact, it appears the initial tip may have come to the chief judge from someone other than one of Kindred’s law clerks. The report said the clerks “suffered in silence” and expressed deep reluctance to cooperate with investigators. It’s not clear whether the judge continued to supervise his clerks during the lengthy investigation, or whether the judiciary made any moves to help them.

“While I’m heartened that the federal judiciary took this issue seriously in this instance, I’m appalled that this type of misconduct was allowed to go on for so long,” said Aliza Shatzman, who started the Legal Accountability Project to share information about problematic judges after her own bad experience as a law clerk.

Deeva Shah, another advocate for clerks, said there’s been too much focus on “minutae,” including changes the judiciary has made to the process for filing complaints, since a major scandal seven years ago. But there are still no uniform standards for reporting abuse and no clear rules across the nation. Instead, each judicial circuit or region operates with its own system and polices itself.

“People don’t feel comfortable reporting,” said Shah, an attorney at Keker, Van Nest and Peters. “That is the undertone throughout the entire order. Making minor changes to process is not enough here.”

Millions of people who experience harassment on the job enjoy workplace protections, whether they report to private companies, nonprofit groups or even the U.S. Congress. But that's not the case for some 30,000 people who work for the federal judiciary. That branch of government is largely exempt from the civil rights law that protects workers and job applicants from discrimination.

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., has been pressing the judiciary to do more to protect workers. Torres said Judge Kindred took comfort in a climate that rewards silence and fear.

“The Judiciary must embrace transparency, always release these decisions and publicize data on their protocols to prevent workplace misconduct,” Torres said in a written statement. “In Congress, I will continue to use every tool at my disposal, including the power of the purse, to protect judicial employees and bring transparency to the Judiciary.”

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.