For the best legal duo #MeToo, a year of pandemic does not bring a break


She had just turned her life upside down by going public with allegations of sexual harassment against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. And Charlotte Bennett, former assistant to the governor, realized this Saturday evening in February that she had no plan for the future. She was 25 and had never been in the media spotlight. How would she deal with the fallout, both publicly and personally?

She didn’t have to wonder long. The next morning, an email arrived from Debra Katz, the same civil rights lawyer who had represented Christine Blasey Ford, accuser of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, as well as the accusers of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and d ‘countless other powerful men accused of sexual misconduct, most with her 20-year-old professional partner Lisa Banks.

“How are you holding up?” Katz asks Bennett when they connected. Was it supported or advised? Not really, says Bennett.

“This case is literally the reason I do this job,” Katz explained, assuring her that she would represent her on a voluntary basis. “That’s why I exist. Let’s do this. “

For many people, the pandemic year brought some kind of pause, or at least a slowdown, to their professional endeavors. For Katz and Banks, the opposite was true. “It’s probably the biggest year we’ve ever had,” says Banks.

Their work has in fact been increasing for almost four years. When Harvey Weinstein’s revelations erupted in October 2017, initiating the computation that became known as the #MeToo movement, it caused “radical change,” Katz said.

“We were inundated – not just real cases, but cases of people who were harassed decades ago but wanted to report the issues now because the person who harassed them was still on the same perch.” , she says.

Katz and Banks each carry dozens of active cases at a time, ranging from informal advice to full-fledged litigation. They consult with each other constantly, starting and ending each day with a conversation and discussing cases on frequent hikes in Rock Creek Park. Banks notes that they jokingly call each other Batman and Robin – she’s Robin, since she’s ten years younger.

It is, say clients and associates, an effective partnership – two very different personalities with common goals.

In the most difficult times, they also shared death threats: During Kavanaugh’s hearings, armed guards were stationed 24/7, outside their homes and at work, and their cars were checked below for explosives. They each struggled to explain to their families, without scaring the children, why safety was necessary.

Katz is known as the fiercest of temper, Banks the coolest. Whistleblower Rick Bright, a federal scientist who was forced to quit his job amid an unproven coronavirus treatment dispute pushed by President Trump, said he immediately appreciated the complementarity of their skills.

“Debbie is more assertive – she’s a driver,” says Bright. “Lisa walks me through the process, educating me on what’s going on every step of the way.” When he was anxious it was Banks who calmed him down.

Katz freely admits that she’s the more emotional of the two, who sometimes struggles not to cry when she sees one of her clients – Ford, for example, or Weinstein’s accusers – grilled over traumatic experiences.

Ford gives the duo credit for helping them overcome their overwhelming Senate testimony.

“Debbie and Lisa have worked tirelessly throughout the summer of 2018 to advise me and try to protect my privacy and maintain my confidentiality,” Ford wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “When the circumstances changed and my story became public, they fought hard on my behalf.

Although difficult, the case was “the most rewarding work experience I have had in my career,” Katz says – although Kavanaugh was ultimately confirmed.

“I think the world has changed because of Christine’s testimony,” Katz explains. “Conversations took place that had never before taken place… in homes, schools, synagogues and churches. We heard from an 80-year-old woman who said, ‘I never told anyone this, but when I was in high school I was raped.’ I think courage breeds courage.

The two lawyers console themselves for the victories and see the long-term setbacks of the movement. When Bill Cosby’s conviction was overturned and he was released from prison, many worried aloud that it would have a chilling effect on victims who would come forward. Katz and Banks don’t see it that way and reminded everyone that Cosby had not been exonerated.

“It’s always disappointing to see people like Cosby not being held fully accountable,” Katz says. “But this is NOT a referendum on the #MeToo movement. And that won’t deter prosecutors from prosecuting others when there is evidence pointing to misconduct. “

Although Katz is the best known, neither she nor Banks are a household name like, say, Gloria Allred, the subject of her own Netflix movie. But they have been dealing with these cases since the start of their careers, motivated to fight against sexual harassment and the pay inequalities that they themselves have suffered.

“An advocate activist… steeped in Washington and feminist rights,” Jodi Kantor and Meghan Twohey write about Katz in “She Said,” their book on Weinstein. She does not dispute the term “activist,” noting that she has spent “countless hours” protesting the Trump administration. “But my political activism is separate from my legal work,” she says.

Katz, 62, started making waves as a law student at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1980s, where she left the Law Review to protest the lack of diversity – there was never had a black student on the staff. (A student magazine profile called it a “loud outing.”) Instead, she started a women’s rights journal.

After graduating, Katz won a scholarship that allowed her to work on a landmark sexual misconduct case: Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, in which the Supreme Court recognized sexual harassment as a category of discrimination protected by Title VII.

In her early jobs, Katz became one of the hardest working women and isn’t afraid to tackle unpopular causes. “I was in my twenties and someone in my fifties called me brash and obnoxious,” Katz says. “I guess I’ve been wired all these years not to let the people who are dear to me get bullied. I’ve never been a table batsman, but I don’t give up the pitch either.

Bennett, Cuomo’s accuser, says she thinks Katz is motivated by her outrage at “the very daring of these people in power who do what they do – and that we are the ones who have to live in it. fear”.

Banks, 53, attended Law School at the University of Denver and spent his early professional years in the Appeal Division of the EEOC. She joined Katz in her previous practice, and in 2006 the two broke up and formed their own, Katz, Marshall & Banks, as Katz recovered from breast cancer.

One of Banks’ first inspirations came when, a huge baseball fan, she told her dad she would like to play for the Boston Red Sox someday – only to be informed that there were no women. on the team. “It struck me as so deeply unfair and outrageous,” she said. “It really inspired me to think about sex discrimination.”

It was Banks who took the helm in sports-related affairs, for example representing the accusers of NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown, who was dumped by the New England Patriots amid assault allegations. Banks has seen more mixed results after spending the past year representing 40 accusers of Washington football team owner Dan Snyder in his sexual misconduct case. the recent NFL action against the team, fining him $ 10 million, was just a “slap on the wrist,” Banks says. And yet, she says her clients don’t regret coming forward.

“All sports leagues are trying to cope with this new world we live in,” Banks says. “There is at least a realization that new rules apply.”

Katz and Banks acknowledge that there has been a slight slowdown – in part due to the pandemic – as the #MeToo movement heads towards its fourth anniversary. But, they say, any social justice movement will experience setbacks along the way.

What’s important now, Katz believes, is that society is “finally asking the right questions.”

“The dialogue has changed, from that happening to WHY is it happening, why is it happening? ” she says. “And what’s wrong, structurally and in our society, that being harassed, tampered with and assaulted – at work or in other fields – is only a condition of being a woman? “


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