Lawyers can now be fined for calling women “honey” or “sweetheart” in US courts

Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Darlings, dears, sweethearts and honeys are no longer allowed in the courtroom.

The American Bar Association (ABA) has amended its professional code of conduct to bar lawyers from addressing women with sexist remarks, in the courtroom. The amendment was put to vote on Aug. 9, in response to a petition by female lawyers who complained of being routinely undermined during trials, with demeaning terms like “honey,” or “darling”. Similar anti-harassment policies are in place in 23 states and the District of Columbia.

This is the first time that the 138-year-old organization has taken an official position on professionally inappropriate language. Its ban will apply nationwide, to its 400,000 members across the United States. Punishment for lawyers who use offensive language—ranging from small fines to suspension—will be determined by state bar associations.

The offense has been defined by the ABA as any “harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice against others,” reports the New York Times. Opponents of the resolution have argued that limiting a lawyer’s speech in trial could stymie their ability to aggressively defend their clients.

In January, a judge in California fined lawyer Peter Bertling $250 after he tried to fluster the opposing counsel with sexist remarks. “A sexist remark is not just a professional discourtesy, although that in itself is regrettable and all too common,” said judge Paul S. Grewal of the federal district court of San Jose. “The bigger issue is that comments like Bertling’s reflect and reinforce the male-dominated attitude of our profession.”

Approximately 70% of female attorneys surveyed by the Defense Research Institute reported experiencing gender bias in the courtroom, according to a 2015 ABA research report (pdf).