When conversations turn to questions about suspicious public policies, a favorite explanation is “well, follow the money.” The implication is that people who will benefit have “purchased”(or at least influenced) the policy in question.
We very rarely follow the lack of money, although underfunding government agencies and efforts is a time-honored way that lawmakers can pretend to be addressing issues that the public cares about–issues that they (or their donors or supporters) wish would go away.
This tactic is more obvious at the federal level, but it characterizes state politics as well. Recently, I attended a small meeting of professional women–including a few lawyers–who were concerned about the inadequacies of Indiana’s Civil Rights law and the state’s underfunding of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission. The meeting was called after several attended a recent speech by a law school professor; she had enumerated the provisions of Indiana’s Civil Rights law that make it difficult or impossible to punish discriminatory behaviors–especially (but certainly not only) sexual harassment.
When I practiced law, the few discrimination cases I handled were filed with the EEOC–a federal agency. The EEOC has jurisdiction over workplaces with 15 or more employees. I was unaware that Indiana’s Commission has jurisdiction only over companies with 6 or more employees–if you are harassed or discriminated against in a workplace with 4 or 5 employees, or fewer, you are just out of luck. No remedy exists.
In cases of sexual harassment, even people who are “covered” under Indiana’s law have no incentive to bring a complaint, since our Commission can award only back pay–if the complainant was fired. No punitive or other damages, and thus no incentive for an employer to “straighten up and fly right.”
Not only that, but in order to have a case adjudicated in state court, the employer must agree to be sued. In writing. And religious employers (including religiously affiliated organizations like hospitals) are exempt. (Given the number of news stories about preachers who prey while they pray, I found this rather astonishing.)
Deviation from the administrative process is uncommon because the Indiana Code requires written consent from both parties before the civil suit commences. Nonetheless, in the unlikely event that a complainant obtains the respondent’s consent, another provision of the Indiana Code mandates that the case be tried by a judge, not a jury. Even if the employee wins the case, his damages are limited to “wages, salary, or commissions.” Furthermore, he cannot recover his attorney’s fees. Thus, the combined effect of these statutes unfairly biases state civil rights proceedings against complainants.
As appalling as I found these elements of Indiana’s law–inadequacies which evidently place us among the four least-protective states in the country–what really focused my attention on Indiana’s lack of commitment to nondiscrimination and fundamental fairness was the agency’s funding. The Commission is one of the most poorly funded state agencies, and its employees are among the most poorly compensated. If our state law were to be improved, and the Commission’s jurisdiction expanded, it simply wouldn’t have the capacity to hear the additional complaints. It can barely cope with its workload now.
What I learned at that meeting was that the persistent refusal of Indiana’s lawmakers to pass a hate crimes enhancement law is part of a larger pattern. Not only are we one of only five states without a hate crimes law, but previous efforts to add “four words and a comma” to our civil rights statute–to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of identities protected against discrimination–have also gone nowhere.
Our civil rights statute is among the four least protective in the country, and we significantly underfund the agency that is charged with enforcing the few protections we do offer.
Welcome to Indiana, the Mississippi of the North….