In 1991, a vacancy existed on the U.S. Supreme Court. Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall had died. Marshall was the first person of African-American descent to sit on the Supreme Court.
President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to fill Marshall’s seat.
A contentious hearing was held before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee at the time was controlled by the Democrats. Senator Joe Biden, now Vice-President Biden, was Chairman of the Committee.
Anita Hill had worked as a legal adviser to Clarence Thomas when he was Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Later as Thomas’ legal adviser when he became Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Hill worked for Thomas a total of two years. Following which Hill left public service. She became a law school professor. First at Oral Roberts University. Then at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
It was ten years after Hill left public service under Thomas that Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court seat.
Hill claimed that Thomas had sexually assaulted her when she worked under him. Her testimony before the Judiciary Committee was required.
Thomas was neither approved nor disapproved by the Judiciary Committee. The vote was 7-7. Normally a tie vote would be considered a failure by the nominee to obtain approval to proceed to a vote by the full Senate.
For some reason, the Judiciary Committee referred the matter to the Senate for its advice and consent vote. The Senate approved Thomas’ nomination 52-48. The closest approval vote in more than 100 years.
Thomas’ approval might be considered a rejection/disbelief of Hill’s sexual harassment charge. Others believe Thomas only squeaked by because of it.
The story as told thus far is merely the bones of the situation. The meat/motivations of certain individuals more interesting and important.
I am approaching this column with the background of the five persons primarily involved in the battle over Thomas’ nomination. Much of what follows is generally unknown.
The five key players in the Senate Judiciary confirmation process were Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Joe Biden, Arlen Specter, and John Danforth.
We start with Clarence Thomas.
In his youth, Thomas was a devout Catholic. He attended Conception Seminary College in Missouri. His goal to become a priest.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination intervened. Someone at the seminary made a racist comment re King. As a result, Thomas left the seminary.
Thereafter, he began attending Episcopal services.
Thomas was a product of affirmative action. Were it not for affirmative action, Thomas would not be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice today.
Interestingly, Thomas derided affirmative action during his professional career and in his votes/decisions as a Supreme Court Justice.
It was thought at the time of the Judiciary Committee hearings that Thomas was not a supporter of Roe v. Wade. His votes/decisions in the 25 years he has been a Justice reflect the same.
He is considered the most conservative member of the Court.
A Yale Law School graduate, his professional time has been primarily spent in federal public service. First as Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil rights. Then as Chairman of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. From 1990-1991, he was a Judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
Thomas during his time on the Court has not distinguished himself as a Thurgood Marshall. He is not a Thurgood Marshall.
An appellate judge asks questions. He probes counsel’s reasoning while searching for the proper decision. In his 25 years as a Justice, Thomas has asked 2 questions. In instances where he wants a question asked, he writes it on a note which he passes to Justice Stephen Breyer to ask.
Thomas claims to have been greatly influenced by the writings of Ayn Rand. Most, including this writer, consider her a nut. She wrote amongst other books The Fountainhead. The movie starred Gary Cooper as the strong willed person standing alone against society.
While heading the Washington departments, it is said he made the movie obligatory viewing for staff members.
Hill’s charges of sexual harassment involved words, comments, stories, date requests. No touching.
Thomas’ hearing was not going well because of the sexual harassment questioning by the Committee. The sexual questions were most embarrassing.
At one point in the proceedings, he expressed his deepest feelings to the Committee. He compared the Committee and Hill’s charges to a legal lynching: “…..it is a high-tech-lynching for uppity blacks…..it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order…..you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”
I watched most of the Committee hearings on TV. To a lawyer, this was edge of the seat drama. I felt up to the point of the lynching exclamation, Thomas was losing the battle. The lynching comments were dramatic. The comments turned the tide. They made Thomas appear greatly wronged.
I believe they were connived.
Thomas’ second wife Virginia Lamb is white. He married her in 1987.
Mrs. Thomas is a distinguished conservative in her own right. She worked as a lobbyist and aide to Congressman Dick Armey. The second most powerful man in the House of Representatives at the time. She has been a consultant to the Heritage Foundation. Founder and President of Liberty Central, a non-profit conservative political advocacy group. In 2011, she stepped down to open a conservative lobbying firm. She describes her participation in the lobbying firm as that of “an ambassador to the Tea Party.”
A Yale Law School graduate also. A product of affirmative action.
Following her work under Thomas, she became a law professor at two law schools. Today, she enjoys a full professorship at Brandeis University.
Her accusations came ten years after the events occurred. The delay in reporting them did not help her position. She did tell several other people at the time, however. They were not permitted to testify by Chairman Biden and the Judiciary Committee.
Prior to her testimony, she was asked to take a lie detector test. She did. She passed. Thomas was asked to take a lie detector test. He refused.
She was calm and straight forward in her responses during Committee questioning. Never lost her composure. The Committee questioning was rough. Tough. Especially by Senator Arlen Specter.
Following her testimony, Hill returned to her teaching career. Rarely to be heard from again.
I know Joe Biden. I have watched his career for years. Then when I was Chairman of the Board of Visitors at the Syracuse University School of Law was privileged to know him personally. A nice guy. One of the best.
Not during these hearings.
Joe Biden has been a great public servant. He is a good man. Nevertheless, I disagree with his conduct during the hearings.
Biden handled the Anita Hill phase poorly. He was chauvinistic and condescending.
Biden had chaired the Committee four years earlier during the equally contentious hearings regarding Robert Bork. Perhaps he did not want such a war repeated in the Thomas hearings.
He refused to permit Angela Wright to testify. Wright’s testimony involved similar charges as Hill had made.
Nor would he permit expert testimony on the issue of sexual harassment.
Biden’s excuse was he was trying to preserve Thomas’ right to privacy and the decency of the hearings. I disagree with his motivations. His responsibility was to protect the rights of the American people. Additionally, where sex is charged, sexual testimony is a must in being permitted. Not avoided based on a decency argument. Today, the decency argument would not fly.
Biden was severely criticized following the hearings by legal groups and women’s groups. For mishandling the hearings and not having done enough to support Hill. The appearance was the deck was stacked against Hill.
Arlen Specter was a member of the Judiciary Committee. A long time Republican Senator from Pennsylvania. Prior to becoming a Senator, he was the District Attorney of Philadelphia.
He was politically a centrist. Time Magazine considered him one of America’s Ten Best Senators.
His conduct during the hearings was not representative of the manner in which he was viewed by people generally. It was abnormal.
Specter started his questioning by saying, “I do not regard this as an adversary proceeding.” He then proceeded to conduct a most antagonistic and fierce examination of Hill. He was hostile and adversarial. He treated Hill as if she were a murder defendant and he the district attorney cross examining her at a criminal trial.
I considered his conduct disgusting.
At one point, he stated to reporters that Hill’s testimony was perjurious in its entirety. She lied.
Specter’s conduct was so awful that 1,000 telephone calls were received by his office in protest. The calls kept coming in. Specter’s Senatorial office was required to have 40 people on the telephones. Eventually, the calls became too heavy for the telephone system. It died.
Let me interject at this point that both Specter and Biden’s conduct were not what the public had come to expect from them. They stepped out of their normal roles and became bad guys in pursuit of Hill.
Last, John Danforth.
Danforth was respected by all. Thirty years a U.S. Senator representing Missouri. A political moderate. A conciliator.
An ordained Episcopal priest, he officiated at Ronald Reagan’s funeral.
Danforth carried considerable political clout.
Danforth and Thomas were two of a kind in that they both had attended a seminary.
Early in Thomas’ legal career, he served in Danforth’s office when Danforth was the Attorney General of Missouri. When Danforth became a U.S. Senator, Thomas worked as his aide in the Washington offices.
The two were close.
When a person is nominated for the Supreme Court, a Senator becomes his guide through the approval process.
Thomas could not have had a better and more respected person guiding him.
Everything herein is how I view the Thomas / Hill events. My personal thoughts and conclusions. As I watched the Committee hearings on TV 25 years ago and supplemented by my readings over the years. How I felt about them then and feel about them today.
I believe Anita Hill took an undeserved beating. Come hell or high water, Thomas was going to get out of the Judiciary Committee and to the Senate floor for a full vote by the Senate. What had to be done was done to accomplish the result.
Not quite American. Perhaps I am wrong. The Thomas / Hill scenario is typical American politics.
Consider the games being played today with President Obama’s most recent nomination to the Supreme Court.