By Jeff Donn, AP national writer
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch said Tuesday he taught his law school students about inappropriate questions from prospective employers, contradicting a student who accused him of showing a lack of respect for working women during a classroom discussion about family planning and the workplace.
Gorsuch’s views were echoed to The Associated Press by some of his other former law school students, who contended the accuser misconstrued the lesson.
Former student Jennifer R. Sisk said Gorsuch implied in a legal ethics class in April that he believes many female job applicants unfairly manipulate companies by hiding plans to begin families. She remembered him saying that many accept job offers but quickly leave with maternity benefits.
Sisk, who has since graduated, provided her recollections of the class in a letter Friday to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which started confirmation hearings Monday. Gorsuch has been serving on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and also taught classes as an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder since the late 2000s.
Sen. Dick Durbin asked Gorsuch about Sisk’s allegation on Tuesday, pressing whether the judge had asked his students if they knew about women taking maternity benefits and then leaving their company after a pregnancy. “I want to get to the bottom of it,” said the Illinois Democrat, noting Sisk complained to the school prior to Gorsuch’s nomination.
Federal law bans employers from making hiring decisions based on a woman’s plans to start a family. But Sisk, who worked for the Obama administration’s Interior Department and Democratic former Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, said Gorsuch emphasized that employers may legally ask the question — and that they do so to protect their companies.
Gorsuch said he just learned of Sisk’s claims Sunday night and explained that his classes delved in part into the realities of practicing law. He said he asked students if any already had endured this “inappropriate question about your family planning” by prospective employers, in part so they could be prepared with answers.
“I am shocked it still happens every year that I get women, not men, raising their hand to that question,” Gorsuch said.
Reached before the hearing, four people who took the judge’s ethics classes within the past two years, including two who were in Sisk’s class, said Gorsuch asked provocative questions meant to draw out students and challenge them to think more deeply. None concluded that Gorsuch harbored disrespect for women in the workplace or anywhere else.
“If we wanted to poke the bear a little bit and see how far we were willing to do, he definitely did,” said Ruthanne H. Goff, a Denver lawyer who took the ethics class in spring 2015. She said she remembers Gorsuch posing the same scenario as the one recalled by Sisk — a woman asked during a job interview if she intended to start a family. As she recalls, Gorsuch then asked: “What if she is trying to game the system and leave after she has the baby?”
“At first, I was a little offended that the question was being asked,” said Goff. But she said she then realized that the judge was simply trying to ask “really hard questions” not meant to reflect his own views. “I think he did a fairly good job of keeping his beliefs out of the questions, because we weren’t there to debate whether his views were right. We were there to debate and discuss those issues and how they might affect us when we left law school.”
Will Hauptman, a third-year law student who took ethics with Sisk, said “the judge would sometimes play devil’s advocate in prodding us to justify and explore our own reasoning.” He defended Gorsuch in his own letter Sunday to the Senate committee.
Denver lawyer Baker Arena, who took ethics in the class with Sisk and also wrote a letter defending Gorsuch, said Sisk’s complaint was based on “a gross misunderstanding.” He said Gorsuch had acknowledged that companies do sometimes ask about an applicant’s family plans, but the intent of the class discussion was to explore “a subtle form of discrimination” against women in the workplace. He said Gorsuch definitely did not argue that women were taking advantage of companies by hiding such plans. “I would definitely have noticed something like that, especially if he had espoused his personal view.”
Jordan Henry, who took Gorsuch’s ethics class last fall, said she also remembers a discussion about gender in the workplace. She said she spoke aloud of her own experience being asked about her family plans at a job interview. But she said Gorsuch left her with the impression that he felt the question was “inappropriate.”
“To my memory, the class was about striving for gender equality in the legal industry,” she said.
When reached by the AP by phone late Monday, Sisk said she filed a complaint in April.
In a statement, the law school’s dean, S. James Anaya, said that in April and May administrators “met with the student to address her concerns.” He said the woman was told the matter would be raised with Gorsuch after grades were submitted.
However, the dean went on, “At the end of June, the law school had a transition of deans and, regrettably, preceding that change, no member of the law school administration spoke to Judge Gorsuch about the student’s concern.” Anaya apologized on behalf of the school.
“I stand by the letter I wrote,” Sisk said, adding that she had been unaware that the school had failed to follow up with Gorsuch. She declined further comment.
Kate Mattern, a friend of Sisk’s who also graduated from the school, said Sisk told her of being troubled by Gorsuch’s comments immediately. Sisk “felt that it demonstrated an antiquated view of women in the workplace,” Mattern recalled.
Associated Press writer P. Solomon Banda contributed to this report.