In a prologue to their 1994 book, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson wrote of how “unresolved the conflict” remained between Thomas, a conservative justice, and Anita Hill, a law professor who testified that he had sexually harassed her a decade earlier.
“Rather than dying down, their clash has become part of an active battlefront in America’s culture wars,” the journalists observed of the nomination battle, which elevated Thomas to the nation’s top court in 1991. “The fight has gone well beyond the individuals — who have been reduced to symbols and caricatures — to strike at the heart of American politics.”
Nearly three decades later, as the Senate prepares to vote on another Supreme Court nomination, a contest is taking shape with clear parallels to the controversy that pitted the word of Thomas against that of Hill. An allegation of sexual assault has surfaced against Brett M. Kavanaugh, a nominee put forward by President Trump, who himself has been accused of sexual misconduct. All three Republicans — Thomas, Kavanaugh and Trump, who are dissimilar in background and temperament — deny the accusations.
A year into the #MeToo movement, the dispute over Kavanaugh’s nomination could test how the culture wars have evolved and what the country has learned since 1991, whose convulsive events helped give 1992 its label as the “Year of the Woman.” The designation captured the historic number of women who rose to public office that year, in a mass political mobilization finding echoes in 2018.
“I was motivated to run for the Senate after watching the truly awful way Anita Hill was treated by an all-male Judiciary Committee interrogating her about the sexual harassment she endured at the hands of now-Justice Clarence Thomas,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said in a statement Sunday.
Murray asked her colleagues to “treat this survivor with empathy and humanity and make sure that the United States Senate in 2018 doesn’t send the signal it sent to millions of women in 1991 who were scared to speak up, afraid to share their stories, and watched on television as someone very much like them was attacked and maligned.”
Kavanaugh’s nomination was already fraught. Democrats are still incensed by Senate Republicans’ refusal to consider President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland in the spring of 2016. They’ve denounced the withholding of thousands of pages of documents detailing Kavanaugh’s involvement in pitched political battles, including his service in George W. Bush’s White House.
The revelation over the weekend that Kavanaugh stands accused of sexual assault will widen the meaning of his nomination beyond the judiciary. It is now also a fight over the #MeToo movement and the rules for adjudicating claims of misconduct in an intensely partisan arena.
“Do we assume that women are lying or do we listen respectfully and take their claims seriously?” said Sally Goldfarb, a law professor at Rutgers University who helped draft the 1994 Violence Against Women Act. “I hope the current allegations against Judge Kavanaugh will be treated in a different way than the disgraceful way that Anita Hill’s allegations were treated in 1991.”
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, John Dean, President Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, admonished the majority for withholding background documents about Kavanaugh, invoking the 11th-hour disclosures about Thomas’s past.
“Because Justice Thomas was not fully vetted, his career on the court has been under a cloud,” Dean said. “Thomas’s truthfulness vis-a-vis Professor Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment has never been fully resolved.”
Crucial factors link allegations against Kavanaugh and those leveled against Thomas on the eve of his 1991 appointment. Both women wanted to remain anonymous. Both episodes are said to have occurred in the early 1980s. But the two cases also diverge in important ways, among them the fact that only a decade had passed between Hill’s alleged sexual harassment by Thomas and his installation on the court vs. three decades that have gone by between Kavanaugh’s alleged behavior and his confirmation process.
As the The Washington Post revealed Sunday, Christine Blasey Ford, a research psychologist in California, has accused Kavanaugh, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, of sexually assaulting her when he was 17 and she was 15. One summer night in the early 1980s, she said, Kavanaugh pinned her down and attempted to remove her clothes, placing his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.
“I categorically and unequivocally deny this allegation. I did not do this back in high school or at any time,” Kavanaugh said in a statement issued by the White House last week, when aspects of Ford’s account came into view.
Ford did not intend to go public, but when details emerged last week of a letter she had sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, she decided her “civic responsibility” outweighed her “anguish” and fear of retaliation. The alleged episode, though many years in the past, exacted a psychological toll on her, one that she first articulated during couples therapy with her husband in 2012, as The Post’s Emma Brown reported.
The Judiciary Committee had been expected to vote Thursday on Kavanaugh’s nomination, a timeline that may now be in doubt, with several GOP senators joining Democrats in saying that Ford should be heard. Her lawyer said Monday that she is willing to testify.
Hill was heard before the Judiciary Committee, but under circumstances that she claims were designed to discredit her. At the time of her testimony, she was a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
She had worked under Thomas in the early 1980s, first at the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. During this time, she alleged, Thomas repeatedly asked her out, ignoring her refusals, and tried to initiate conversation about pornographic films as well as his sexual prowess.
In an opening statement before the committee in October 1991, Hill recounted how she “began to feel severe stress on the job,” fearful that Thomas would “take out his anger” on her by passing her over for assignments or even dismissing her.
The FBI had investigated her claims the previous month and reported back to the committee, at which point lawmakers split 7-7 on the nomination, put forward by President George H.W. Bush. Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden (D-Del.) joined six Republicans in supporting Thomas. No mention of Hill’s charges was made at the public meeting.
With the panel’s work apparently finished, debate in the full chamber began early the following month. But on Oct. 6, 1991, NPR and Newsday broke news of Hill’s allegations.
“Here is a person who is in charge of protecting rights of women and other groups in the workplace, and he is using his position of power for personal gain, for one thing,” Hill told NPR’s Nina Totenberg. “And he did it in a very, just ugly and intimidating way.”
Thomas denied the allegations, and when the committee hearings reopened on Oct. 11, the D.C. circuit judge and Yale Law School graduate — a pedigree shared by Kavanaugh — called the proceedings “a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas.”
Hill, a Yale Law graduate raised on an Oklahoma farm, spoke after him, explaining that she “may have used poor judgment” in not taking more “militant steps,” but that this “seemed the better as well as the easier approach.”
She recounted how she had tried to maintain her privacy, reluctant to come forward when Senate staff members approached her about Thomas’s nomination. Ultimately, however, she felt she had a “duty to report,” she said.
The all-male, all-white members of the committee questioned her credibility and quibbled with her about the lurid details of her account. At one point, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) announced that the FBI report “contains no reference to any mention of Judge Thomas’s private parts or sexual prowess or size of his private parts.”
“With the traditions of the Senate and the committee, Biden thought he was going to conduct a hearing, but the Republicans knew — led by Arlen Specter — that they were going to conduct a trial,” Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democratic congresswoman from Maryland at the time, said in an oral history conducted by The Post with the small group of Hill’s congressional advocates. “And Professor Hill would be the one on trial.”
Biden refused to permit public testimony from a number of witnesses who endorsed Hill’s version of events. He did “a disservice to me, a disservice more importantly, to the public,” Hill said in a 2014 interview with the Huffington Post.
“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” Biden told Teen Vogue last year. “I owe her an apology.” The former vice president and possible 2020 presidential contender ultimately voted against Thomas when the judge was confirmed, 52-48, on Oct. 15, 1991.
Hill, who did not return an email late Sunday seeking comment, told Politico through a spokeswoman last week, as the allegation against Kavanaugh became public, that, “the government needs to find a fair and neutral way for complaints to be investigated.”
“I have seen firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponized against an accuser, and no one should have to endure that again,” added Hill, who is now a professor at Brandeis University.
The alleged wrongs are different. The ages of the nominees at the time of the alleged wrongdoing are different.
So, too, is the makeup of the Judiciary Committee different, although not markedly so. Of its 21 members, four are women — all Democrats. Among them is Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), who on Sunday pinned a message to the top of her Twitter page calling for a “thorough investigation” of Kavanaugh before a vote on the nomination. But the Senate is controlled by Republicans, whereas Democrats held legislative power in 1991.
Kavanaugh has emphasized his support for young female lawyers, saying in his opening statement before the Judiciary Committee that he was “proud that a majority of my law clerks have been women.” Republicans have also trumpeted the judge’s backing among women. On Friday, Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) circulated a letter from 65 women who claim to have known the nominee in high school vouching for his character.
Last month, Lisa Blatt, a self-described “liberal feminist lawyer,” set out in Politico her case for Kavanaugh. “Kavanaugh is a Mentor to Women,” proclaimed Amy Chua of Yale Law School, writing in the Wall Street Journal that there was “no judge” she would “trust more” to guide her daughter’s legal training. Neither woman returned an email seeking comment Sunday night.
In his 1994 account of the Thomas nomination, “Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas,” former senator John Danforth (R-Mo.), whom the judge credits for his legal career, quotes Thomas as saying that he “played by the rules” in his hearings.
“And playing by those rules, the country has never seen the real person,” Thomas said, according to Danforth. “There is an inherent dishonesty in the system.”
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