First, I’ll go out on a limb and say, I’m against sexual harassment and sexual assault. I’m against men with professional or financial power using that power against women. I believe the women who are making the accusations, especially when the men choose not to put up much of a defense and just disappear (anyone hear anything from Charlie Rose lately?); I do not reject the accusations just because they are being made by women, or because I believe that the men are somehow being treated unfairly.
I have wondered if there are cases in which the past has been turned on its head. Used to be, a woman’s accusation of misconduct against her boss, for example, was dismissed out of hand as not being credible, and the justice system has long made it difficult for a woman to prosecute a case against her rapist…men in charge protecting other men lest they be the next to stand accused. But since The New York Times and The New Yorker broke stories about movie producer Harvey Weinstein last year, the tide has turned and we’re told we must believe the woman. #MeToo proponents and others argue that women who have been harassed or assaulted do not lie about it. OK, I’m with you. But are there women who were not harassed or assaulted who are lying, who are making false accusations? In our newfound effort to correct past wrongs, are we being appropriately concerned about that possibility?
Dozens of power brokers have been the subject of allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct since Bill O’Reilly was ousted from Fox News in April 2017. And as more and more figures face consequences — financial, political, professional, and legal — for their bad behavior, one term that comes up over and over again is “due process,” referring to the legal concept enshrined in the Constitution.
Even President Donald Trump is in on it: In a tweet on Saturday, apparently prompted by the resignations of two of his aides, Rob Porter and David Sorensen following allegations of domestic abuse, the president lamented the number of “lives being shattered” by a “mere allegation” of misconduct. “Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?” he asked, almost plaintively. But what does due process really mean today, now that people have begun to invoke it as a cultural concept?
I asked seven legal scholars and experts what due process is, with the understanding that in legal circles the question is essentially an existential one. Due process in court is one thing — in the court of public opinion, it is a much more fluid notion, entangling questions of what is fair, what is reasonable to believe, and what rings emotionally true.
The first of the seven, former federal judge Shira Scheindlin, makes a case that I find very clear and persuasive, clarifying that “due process” in a court of law is not the same as that which a reasonable man or woman should give to public accusations such as these:
The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, provides, inter alia, that “No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” This legal standard means what is says. Certainly Rob Porter, and others who have been accused of sexual abuse or harassment, are not being deprived of their life or their liberty as a result of the allegations made against them. Property is a closer question in that some have lost their jobs — and the income resulting from that employment — as a result of accusations rather than proof in a court of law. Nonetheless, in most instances the question is not one of civil or criminal liability. Rather, the question is whether given the quality of the allegations, the person against whom the allegations have been made, should remain in the position of trust, confidence, and responsibility which he (and it usually is he) currently holds.
But when a business, a government entity, or a voter must decide whether someone is fit for his position, the decision process is of necessity much less formal, quicker, and truncated. A judgment call must be made and it often must be made quickly. The due process of a court action is often a very complicated and lengthy affair, involving pre-trial discovery, witnesses, and a judicial proceeding. But given the stakes of loss of life or liberty that makes sense. In context, the accusations that cause a person to lose his job must be evaluated by the employer who must make a judgment call based on the strength of those allegations. There is nothing wrong with that. If the person removed from his position feels aggrieved he is welcome to bring a case in court in which he would have the burden of showing that he was wrongfully terminated. In that proceeding I have no doubt that the underlying accusations would be fully aired. That may be why so few — if any of the accused — have pursed this course.
Law professor and author Michael Meltsner of Northeastern University agrees that there is a distinction between due process as a legal concept as compared to a societal norm, and warns that raising that flag in these cases “can be an ideological screen behind which abusers or those defending them try to justify, deflect or delay condemnation.” (He didn’t say it here but it made me think of President Trump, the credibly-accused, and self-confessed, harasser and assaulter of girls and women.)
What often gets lost in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse is that even the most flexible construct of due process focuses us on a struggle for fairness in the face of our human tendency to rush toward moral judgment. But just as importantly, due process isn’t deaf, dumb, and blind. It is essentially evidence-based, so where the facts have emerged — and we have a plethora of such examples now before us — no one need hesitate to pass judgment. At the same time, due process suggests being wary of broadsides that read all accusations identically. Human behavior, especially where sex, gender and power are concerned is often hard to fathom. Because one size rarely fits all, we are constantly challenged to name, call out, and demand action while at the same time accepting nuance and complexity. If this suggests closing your Twitter account, so be it.