Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said Wednesday that the General Assembly will create a “powerful” new commission to recommend how the legislature should root out sexual harassment in its ranks.

Miller said he and House Speaker Michael E. Busch will create the panel, which Miller said should be composed of only women, to study how other states and countries successfully handle allegations of sexual harassment.


The panel will hold public hearings.

“This is something that is extremely serious, and the public needs to know we’re serious,” Miller told reporters Wednesday morning, a few hours before the opening gavel of the annual 90-day legislative session.

Busch, like Miller a Democrat, said the legislature’s leadership has been conducting an education campaign.

“Some of the men don’t even realize that their actions are being seen as harassment. Well, we make sure that they know that,” Busch said. He added, “With the women legislators, we want them to feel comfortable going through the structure and the process, and having some anonymity.”

Amid a national conversation about holding sexual harassers accountable, the presiding officers have faced criticism on whether they've done enough to transparently and proactively address the issue.

In December, they instituted a new policy that would track allegations of harassment and produce an annual report about the number of incidents and how they would be handled. The details of each case would remain confidential in the report.

Previously, the legislature did not track how such cases were handled. The change was criticized by some for not providing enough transparency, particularly when allegations of harassment by lawmakers were sustained.

Miller said Wednesday that “people need to be sanctioned” if allegations are sustained.

Del. Ariana B. Kelly, chair of the women’s legislative caucus, questioned whether adopting corporate policies about sexual harassment would work in a political environment, where lawmakers aren’t employees and relationships are crucial to professional success.

“A lot of these are unofficial relationships that really affect your career,” she said.

She said 27 male legislators, in concert with the women’s caucus, wrote a letter to Miller and Busch more than a year ago, raising questions about the legislature’s process and pointing to a best-pratices study from the federal Equal Opportunity Commission.

She said many of those questions have remained unanswered, but as of Wednesday morning, the presiding officers had assured her the caucus’ input will be part of the new commission.