If our society accepts that men can discipline women physically, and if prosecutors don't prosecute it, then the silent message sent is: We don't believe it's wrong.
The challenge of implementing the findings of "The Report of the Utah Task Force on Gender and Justice" lies in the almost overwhelming challenge of changing attitudes of a whole society, says Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Zimmerman."We do have laws that say it's wrong to physically harm your spouse. But until people pay attention and get the police and prosecutors to take domestic violence seriously, dramatic changes won't occur. Something as naughty as the spouses beating up each other - and why we put up with it - requires resistance to cultural norms that define how men and women relate to each other," said Zimmerman.
In some Utah counties, prosecutors indicate that spousal abuse is not perceived to be a problem because it is not reported, the justice said.
Commending the progress made in past legislative sessions - particularly by Women Lawyers of Utah Inc. - Zimmerman said their efforts address "just the tip of the iceberg." Those seeking to eradicate gender bias that is manifest in all sections of society, not just the legal system, must be committed for "the long haul."
Zimmerman and other members of the gender bias task force continue to speak out to prosecutors, police officers, educators, attorneys, law professors, clergy, business and government leaders, educating them about the damage gender bias creates in Utah's families and communities.
"There is nothing in the law that tolerates disparate treatment of men and women - on its face. But in operation, there is disparity," he said.
Bias in court is a larger issue than judges calling female attorneys by their first names or by endearments. That kind of bias can be corrected through educating judges. A more pervasive, elusive bias is economic, he said.
"If women don't have any economic power, when a divorce situation confronts them, their access is determined by their ability to hire a lawyer. If women don't have enough money to pursue those rights, then they are going to be inadequately represented in court. The odds are the results in court for women will be less satisfactory."
Sometimes men are disadvantaged in child custody cases - not economically, but by gender-based perceptions, he said.
"Gender bias crosses government and societal lines. It's not something the courts can solve alone. No one should expect a quick fix, but that doesn't mean we should not attempt to fix it."
Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham is co-chairman of the committee charged with implementing the recommendations of the gender and justice report in the courts.
She also is chairwoman of the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century, which examines the quality and fairness of Utah's legal system. That commission's recommendation: The findings of the gender and justice report "should not be forgotten."
The challenge with educating and sensitizing judges and lawyers about bias is not confronting hostility but in fighting indifference, she said.
"Fairness issues are integral to the whole notion of the quality of justice. Everything we do in the judiciary ought to be done from the perspective of whether it encourages general fairness."
The implementation committee continues to keep gender bias on the front burner by providing education materials and statistics, and conducting training seminars. But gender bias competes with a full agenda of other court issues. "We have to struggle for our fair share of attention," she said.
Illustrating the dramatic change in attitude toward women in law in the past 30 years, Durham shares the story of a colleague who attended Yale Law School in 1957:
Law classes were held in very small classrooms. Latecomers stood in the back. Two women students arrived early to secure seats in the front. After a few days, the law professor scolded the women, saying, "OK, ladies, you've had your fun. Move to the back of the room so the men can sit in the front."
"Remarkably," said Durham, "the women moved to the back without asking questions. They just accepted it."
Questions Durham suggests that need to be asked regarding fairness in Utah courts:
- Why do women and children suffer economically after a divorce while men experience an increase?
- Why are civil jury awards in wrongful death cases uniformly less when the decedent is female?
- Why are juvenile female offenders treated more harshly than males for offenses such as truancy or drinking? Is it the notion that, "Boys will be boys but girls better be ladies?"
- What is the appropriate role of the law in controlling and regulating a woman's reproductive function?
"Our commission can't answer all the questions, but we can ensure that there is an environment of fairness where these questions are addressed regularly," Durham said.