Let’s call it the “Netflix Effect.” Immediately cutting ties with accused sex offenders before doing even a cursory investigation has become the trendy thing to do in recent weeks, and everyone’s trying to jump on board that PR wagon. Taking on an absurdly binary view of sexual misconduct is apparently the road to public accolade, and big law firms aren’t about to miss their chance to get in on that action – even if it means back-stabbing their own employees.
A few days ago, Fox News legal analyst Mercedes Colwin appeared on Sean Hannity’s show.
When Hannity pressed Colwin on whether some women make false sexual assault and harassment allegations, the decade-and-a-half veteran of Fox News answered in just the way I’d have expected the managing partner in a big defense firm to do so:
Hannity: Do people do it for money? Do they do it for political reasons? Is that more common than people think?
Colwin: Oh definitely.
Hannity: They will lie to make money?
Colwin: Undoubtedly. I mean, there are individuals who will come forward with these outrageous allegations, and they fall…
Hannity: And that hurts women who are victims.
Colwin: Yes. I used to work in sex crimes in the DA’s office. It was very pitiful to see that. Because some jurors don’t believe it because they have, in their own lives, there are people who have made these accusations for money. You see this time and time and time again. And sexual harassment, that term is coined everywhere, frankly, the laws are very clear about what it takes to have some sort of violation of the law. You have to have some sort of damage. And these individuals, a lot of these women, it’s all about money, and they bank on the fact that these corporations have the reputation that they want to save.
Hannity: And the hard—this is where you thread the needle, because there are women who are victims of predators.
Colwin: Yes, there are. There are. But very few and far between.
I know. Colwin’s comments sound pretty harsh and anti-victim, if that’s how you choose to hear them. But they also ring of experienced lawyering. Colwin’s media brand has always been that of a smart, reasonable, and moderate lawyer; she’s hardly Ann Coulter or Tomi Lahren. She’s been successful at Fox News for years, not because she’s some kind of inflammatory provocateur, but rather, because she knows the law and connects with audiences.
Like any other lawyer who handles civil cases, Colwin knows that there are, of course, those who bring lawsuits for political or financial gain. And those false claims do indeed hurt true victims. Colwin’s off-the-cuff attempt to explain a major impediment in sexual harassment cases may have created an awkward sound bite, but her worst error was assuming Hannity’s audience understood what she meant – not painting victims collectively as a group of lying bitches.
Colwin was absolutely correct in pointing out that for a plaintiff to win a sexual harassment lawsuit, he or she must prove actual damages – and that hurdle is often insurmountable. Without a plaintiff showing resulting medical or financial suffering, that plaintiff is out of luck in court. Could Colwin have framed her answer differently? Could she have prefaced her comments with canned victim-friendly language? Could she have taken ten more seconds to drive home the distinction between criminal cases and civil ones? Sure she could have. But let’s be serious. This woman understands Hannity’s audience better than most. Her job as a Fox contributor is to speak in a voice that’s pleasing and familiar to the Fox audience. And let’s not forget that Mercedes Colwin was, until yesterday, the managing partner of Gordon & Rees’ New York Office – a large law firm that handles primarily defense cases. It wouldn’t exactly play well with the firm’s clients for its managing partner to go onto national television and proclaim all accusers to be truth-tellers.
Gordon & Rees, for its part, panicked. It sent out a press release assuring the world that [despite the fact that it makes millions defending those accused of misconduct], it:
in no way endorses or agrees with any statements which could even remotely be interpreted as minimizing or trivializing the seriousness and gravity of sexual harassment or similarly predatory behaviors, and we renounce them in the strongest possible terms – in fact, contrary to what may have been inferred from what was said during the telecast, the sad reality is that the number of women who likely have not been exposed to such repugnant conduct over the course of their personal or professional lives is, unfortunately, few and far between.
That’s not all, either. Gordon & Rees also removed Mercedes Colwin as managing partner, claiming that Colwin, “voluntarily stepped down from all management roles within the firm and she is committed to rectifying the hurtful impressions created by her remarks.” Oh, and it replaced her with a male attorney, like most of its other managing partners, so spare me the part where this enormous law firm is really a champion of feminist ideals.
The enormous reach of the #MeToo movement has had an incredibly positive effect on our society; for the first time, we’re seeing male and female victims of sexual predators be embraced with public support instead of the usual public suspicion. We’re even seeing those who would profit from a predator’s work stand with victims instead of their own bottom lines. But in that progress, we must not create an absurd new reality. Sexual assault and harassment are real. False accusations are real. Those of us who use due process as the tools of our trade have no problem reconciling those two things. Anyone who watches Fox News knows that it’s not a place for subtlety.
Note: Colwin once represented Law&Crime’s sister site, TheMarySue.com, in an unrelated matter.
[Image via Fox News screengrab]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.