Friday, November 10, 2017

Unfit to Hold Office: Sexual Harassment and the Minnesota Legislature

Are Minnesota legislators who sexual harass colleagues or members of the public unfit to hold office? The answer should be yes, and both the Minnesota House and Senate should be prepared to reach this conclusion if Representative Cornish and  Senator  Schoen do not resign  and the two legislative bodies are required to judge the fitness of these two members to remain in office.
There appears to be a sea change afoot in politics when it comes to gender discrimination.  Inspired by the accounts of the like of Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Roy Moore (Senate candidate in Alabama), and Donald Trump, it is possible that there is a new political standard emerging in politics that make the creation of a sexually hostile environment by elected officials wrong.  If that  is the case, then the standard of conduct expected of public officials is only 30 years behind the times.
In 1986 in Meritor Savings Bank  v. Vinson,  477 US 57 (1986) the US Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment in the workplace was actionable as sexual discrimination  under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Prior to that decision, short of actual unwanted  physical conduct, women (who are mostly the victims) had little recourse against their bosses or co-workers when they made unwanted sexual advances or engaged in unwanted sexual language.  Meritor Savings changed that.  It, along with rulings by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said that there were two forms of sexual harassment or discrimination.
The first is quid pro quo–conditioning employment upon the exchange of sexual favors (“Sleep with me if you want to keep your job”).  The second is hostile environment–creating a workplace where  unwelcome conduct based on sex or gender that is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.  Such conduct need not br specifically directed at a particular person, but it can include offensive jokes, remarks, pictures, and general discussion by employers, managers, or coworkers.
Across the public, private, and non-profit sectors, most people get it, sexual harassment is wrong, and grounds for discipline and dismissal.   But some still do not, and among those who don’t, it appears some are elected officials.  It should not only be wrong to harass your staff, but also your legislative colleagues and even lobbyists and members of the public.  While the public may not always view legislators and lobbyists  favorably, they should not be sexually harassed.  For legislators, unwanted sexual advances are part of the good old boys club that pervaded for so long, and which appears to persist.  It sends a signal that women are second rate, and that they, their work, and the legislation they advance is  judged not on it merits but how they look in a dress.
Lobbyists advocate for their members and they should not be hit on when doing they job.  While not employees of the legislature, they nonetheless are in a power differential position when it comes to legislators, potentially feeling that  they must  acquiesce to sexual overtures as a condition of doing their job.   Such behavior  sends signals also to constituents and the general public that if they too are female they may to exercise their First Amendment rights in a sexually hostile environment..  The point here is that sexual harassment by legislators  undermines democracy by chilling half the population out of exercising their rights to free speech.
So what should be done?  Ultimately the conclusion should be that all forms of sexual harassment by Minnesota State Legislators is wrong and grounds for removal from office by the House and the Senate.  The Minnesota Constitution, Article IV, Section 6 declares that: “ Each  house shall be the judge of the election returns and eligibility of its own members.”  This clause gives each house the power to set and judge the ethical standards of its members, setting their own standards on evidence needed to prove violations.  It need not be a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt found in criminal law, but something less than that in the judgment of the House and Senate.  The level of proof demanded in many ways sets the standard of ethical conduct for its members.
Senate Rule 56 declares that it may discipline members who display behavior that “violates accepted norms of Senate behavior, that betrays the public trust, or that tends to bring the Senate into dishonor or disrepute.”  House Rule 6.1 says the same thing.  One would hope that the two chambers would conclude that sexual harassment of not just staff but other legislators, lobbyists, and the general public, would be something that violates these standards, rendering members who do this unfit to serve.

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