When Chessy Prout sued the St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire for negligence after she was sexually assaulted in her freshman year, her attorneys made a simple request: that, as a minor facing death threats from fellow students and alumni, she remain anonymous during the course of the lawsuit. The attorney representing the $62,000-a-year boarding school, Michael Delaney, opposed that motion and overnight, the 15-year-old Prout became a public figure.
Now, five years after the Prouts settled with the school, President Joe Biden wants to make Delaney a federal judge. And his nomination to the First Circuit Court of Appeals has put Democrats in an awkward spot, caught between support for one of their party’s judicial nominees and support for survivors of sexual assault.
For now, they seem to have opted for the former, despite pleas from Prout’s parents to sink Delaney’s nomination. Seven of the 11 Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee were no-shows for his hearing before the panel earlier this month. And lawmakers like New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D.)—who once lauded Prout’s transformation from a high-school student into a young activist—are nowhere to be found.
That has left it to the Prout family to make sure, in the words of Chessy’s father Alex Prout, that Delaney is nothing more than "an ambulance-chasing attorney."
"This is a time to do the courageous thing and withdraw this nomination," Alex Prout told the Washington Free Beacon. Sitting alongside his wife, Susan, Alex Prout says that Delaney—having pushed successfully to unmask the identity of his daughter in a civil lawsuit surrounding the elite boarding school’s culpability for her sexual assault at the hands of an 18-year-old high-school senior—does not belong on the federal bench.
"Mr. Delaney, you do not deserve to be in this position," Alex Prout said. "You've chosen the path that you wanted to take to make money off of survivors of sexual assault and defend these institutions."
In 2018, St. Paul’s became one of the only schools in the country to enter into a settlement agreement with law enforcement in order to avoid potential criminal charges over what New Hampshire authorities called rampant "child endangerment," a blemish on the reputation of an institution that counts John Kerry, Robert Mueller, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) as alumni.
That settlement stemmed from Chessy Prout’s quest for accountability for that senior, Owen Labrie, who was found guilty in 2015 of misdemeanor sexual assault. That accountability also included a civil suit against St. Paul’s filed by the Prouts, in which Chessy Prout—referred to as "Jane Doe"— alleged that the school had tolerated "ritual" sexual abuse by students.
St. Paul’s retained Delaney as counsel, and his tactics were aggressive from the outset. The school demanded access to Prout’s diary, threatened to interview her friends, and filed a motion to strip her anonymity at trial.
Keeping victims of sex crimes anonymous at trial is hardly irregular. When the Boy Scouts of America faced a lawsuit from victims of a former scout leader who molested over 100 boys, their names were never made public, though all of the victims were adults at the time of the lawsuit. Delaney represented the Boy Scouts and ultimately prevailed.
"The motion that Michael Delaney filed on behalf of St Paul's School was really a veiled threat," said Alex Prout. "The school already knew that she faced death threats, rape threats from the internet trolls. So I think they felt very comfortable with this threat and thought if they made it, that we would … roll over."
Delaney’s successful push to reveal Chessy Prout’s identity became a flashpoint in his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this month, with Republicans arguing that his conduct was unethical and did not even favorably serve his client's interests.
Delaney testified on Capitol Hill that he never "intended to intimidate any of the parties to the case" and he is asking the Senate to put the incident in context—to "consider the totality of my record over nearly 30 years," he told the panel.
The effort to kill Delaney’s nomination is not a partisan cause for the Prout family, who describe themselves as apolitical and have a history of supporting Democratic candidates and causes, including participation in the Trump-era Women’s March. But they are now pressing Democratic senators and the White House to stay true to Biden’s campaign promise of ensuring "justice for survivors"
Susan Prout, who cofounded a nonprofit aimed at spreading awareness about sexual assault called I Have the Right To, penned an op-ed arguing against the confirmation of Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, and campaign finance records reviewed by the Free Beacon show the Prouts gave small donations to a number of Democratic politicians over the years.
The Prout family has asked every Democratic senator on the Judiciary Committee to vote against Delaney’s nomination, athough they say they’ve been met with silence.
Just a few years ago, however, Democrats embraced Prout’s cause—an about-face the Prout family says is a betrayal.
Shaheen, the New Hampshire Democrat, described Prout in 2016 as "a remarkable, brave young woman." And Prout attended the 2018 State of the Union as New Hampshire Rep. Annie Kuster’s (D.) guest of honor.
Neither Shaheen nor Kuster responded to requests for comment, but Shaheen released a joint statement in January alongside her fellow New Hampshire senator Maggie Hassan (D.) calling Delaney "exceedingly qualified" and arguing that his "commitment to justice is evident throughout his career."
"We’re calling out this egregious backing away from values that senators have previously said that they support," Susan Prout told the Free Beacon. "We feel like politics are being played on the backs of survivors, which is very distasteful. And we are calling that out right now."
The White House has given no indication that it plans to pull Delaney’s nomination, though the Department of Justice’s judicial vetting team met with the Prouts. A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but the administration has said it supports Delaney’s nomination.
A final Senate vote on Delaney’s nomination has not yet been scheduled. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not respond to a request for comment but told Politico earlier this month he hadn’t yet decided how he would vote on the nomination.
In the meantime, the Prouts say they’ll continue fighting for justice, not just for their own family, but for millions of other victims of sexual assault.
"We don't know where things stand right now," Alex Prout said. "We know where some senators have publicly said they stood on the topic of supporting sexual assault survivors and wanting to be advocates for this topic—but we've been met with utter silence."