Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg thinks colleges and universities are violating the due process rights of students facing sexual misconduct charges.
The Atlantic's Jeffrey Rosen asked the Court's second-ever female justice for her thoughts on the #MeToo movement. Unsurprisingly, Ginsburg was happy about the increased public attention being paid to the problems of sexual harassment and gender-based inequality in the workplace. But she was also concerned about protecting the due process rights of the accused—particularly on college campuses:
Rosen: What about due process for the accused?
Ginsburg: Well, that must not be ignored and it goes beyond sexual harassment. The person who is accused has a right to defend herself or himself, and we certainly should not lose sight of that. Recognizing that these are complaints that should be heard. There's been criticism of some college codes of conduct for not giving the accused person a fair opportunity to be heard, and that's one of the basic tenets of our system, as you know, everyone deserves a fair hearing.
Rosen: Are some of those criticisms of the college codes valid?
Ginsburg: Do I think they are? Yes.
Note that Ginsburg was asked about due process, but not campuses specifically. The fact that she immediately suggested college codes of conduct as an example of a policy that sometimes violates "the basic tenets of our system," says a great deal about the glaring unfairness of the modern approach to Title IX, the federal statute that requires universities to investigate sexual harassment and assault. And Ginsburg didn't just make note of the controversy; she explicitly said critics of the current procedures have a point.
One of those critics, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has rescinded some of the federal guidance that had contributed to the problem. A legacy of the Obama-era campus sexual misconduct, dictates the infamous 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter had instructed universities to follow sexual misconduct procedures that left little room for due process. The new administration withdrew this letter last September, though most universities have insisted that they will continue to operate as before.
This means that many students who are accused of misconduct will still face investigatory procedures that seem hopelessly biased against them. Accused students are routinely denied the right to confront their accusers, refused access to crucial information about the nature of the charges against them, and forced to prove their innocence to a single bureaucrat who gets to play judge, jury, executioner, lead detective, and prosecutor.
Defenders of what are commonly called "victim-centered" investigatory procedures say preventing rape is more important than obeying due process. But this is a false dichotomy, according to Ginsburg:
Rosen: I think people are hungry for your thoughts about how to balance the values of due process against the need for increased gender equality.
Ginsburg: It's not one or the other. It's both. We have a system of justice where people who are accused get due process, so it's just applying to this field what we have applied generally.
Students who were found responsible for sexual misconduct often sue their universities for violating their due process rights, and many of them have prevailed in court. If a campus sexual misconduct case adjudicated under the deficient standards ever made it all the way to the Supreme Court, it certainly sounds like Ginsburg would question whether the accused was given a meaningful opportunity to defend himself.
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