What You Need to Know: Brett Kavanaugh

Kavanaugh accusations echo the showdown between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas

It is uncertain on Wednesday if a face-off between Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and a woman who has accused him of sexual assault when the two were teenagers will take place early next week.

If it does happen, it won’t be the first time a nominee to the Supreme Court will hear a woman say publicly that he acted inappropriately.

Professor Christine Blasey Ford has accused Kavanaugh of trying to assault her when the two were at a party in the early 1980s. They were both in high school and Ford said Kavanaugh was “stumbling drunk” on the night he allegedly groped her and tried to take off her clothes.

In 1991, a special hearing was convened by the Senate Judiciary after a woman accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Here’s what happened in the Thomas hearing.

A new nominee

On June 28, 1991, Justice Thurgood Marshall announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall, the first African-American to be appointed to the court, had served for 24 years and was in failing health.

Three days later, on July 1, President George W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a 43-year-old, African-American from Pin Point, Georgia, to replace Marshall. 

In the weeks that followed, Thomas’ nomination would become a point of contention with women’s groups railing against Thomas’ views on abortion, civil rights groups opposing his calls for the end of affirmative action and legal organizations upset over Thomas’ lack of experience – he had been a federal judge for just two years.

The confirmation process

Following Bush’s announcement, Thomas met with senators on the Judicial Committee, which was headed by Sen. Joe Biden, (D-Delaware). Thomas’ confirmation hearing began on Sept.10. 

During the hearings, Thomas was questioned about his view on Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion in the United States. Thomas said he had not formulated an opinion on the case, sparking more protest. He was asked whether he thought the Constitution held that people had property rights and if he opposed affirmative action.

On Sept. 27, the Judiciary Committee held two votes. The first was on whether to forward his nomination to the full Senate with a recommendation of support. The vote on that motion ended in a 7-7 tie with Minnesota Sen. Herb Kohl being the only Democrat to vote for Thomas. The second vote was to send Thomas’ nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation – meaning the committee was neither supporting nor opposing the nomination. That vote passed.

Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, (D-Maine), set Oct. 8 as the date for a vote on Thomas’ confirmation.

Rumors of a bombshell to come

On Oct. 5, reports began to circulate about a confidential statement that had been made to the Judicial Committee on Sept. 23.

The story, set to be published that next day in Newsday, said that someone who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was claiming he had sexually harassed her. The information, the story would say, was leaked to several reporters. 

One of those reporters, NPR's Supreme Court correspondent Nina Totenberg, would air the story about Anita Hill’s accusation on the same morning that Newsday’s story came out. She reported that she learned of Hill’s claims when she was given a leaked Judiciary Committee/FBI report.

According to the story, Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, told the committee that Thomas had repeatedly asked her out on dates, described his sexual interests to her and had insisted on describing to her the plots of pornographic movies he had seen. She also said Thomas had talked about lurid sexual situations and bragged about his own sexual prowess.

On Oct. 6, Hill held a press conference in Oklahoma accusing Thomas of harassment publicly. The Judiciary Committee decided on that day, two days before the scheduled Senate vote on Thomas’ nomination, to hold public hearings on Hill’s claims. 

A special hearing grabs the nation’s attention

On Oct. 11, an estimated 20 million people tuned their TV sets into the Judiciary Committee hearing to watch as Hill spelled out in sometimes graphic detail a story of continued sexually harassment by her then-boss, Thomas.

“During this period at the Department of Education, my working relationship with Judge Thomas was positive. I had a good deal of responsibility and independence. I thought he respected my work and that he trusted my judgment,” Hill said.

“After approximately three months of working there, he asked me to go out socially with him. What happened next, and telling the world about it, are the two most difficult things-experiences of my life.

…“I declined the invitation to go out socially with him and explained to him that I thought it would jeopardize at -what at the time I considered to be a very good working relationship. I had a normal social life with other men outside the office. I believed then, as now, that having a social relationship with a person who was supervising my work would be ill-advised. I was very uncomfortable with the idea and told him so.

“I thought that by saying no and explaining my reasons, my employer would abandon his social suggestions. However, to my regret, in the following few weeks, he continued to ask me out on several occasions.

“He pressed me to justify my reasons for saying no to him. These incidents took place in his office or mine. They were in the form of private conversations, which not-would not have been overheard by anyone else.”

Hill was asked if she was only trying to get revenge after being spurned by Thomas and questioned about claims she was delusional when it came to the accusations about Thomas. 

Thomas fires back at the committee

After Hill testified, Thomas appeared again before the committee. In his opening statement, after Biden had characterized the hearing as a chance to address “difficult matters,” Thomas said he wanted to appear before the committee to clear his name, then went on to call the hearing a “circus.” Thomas slammed committee members for even holding the hearing and likened it to a lynching.

“This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.”

The next two days, Saturday and Sunday, supporters of both Hill and Thomas testified before the committee.

The vote

On Tuesday, Oct. 15, the Senate confirmed Thomas on a vote of 52 to 48. Forty-one Republicans and 11 Democrats voted to confirm Thomas’ nomination. Forty-six Democrats and two Republicans voted against the nomination.

Five sitting senators took part in the full Senate vote in 1991 – Patrick Leahy, (D-Vermont), Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa), Richard Shelby, (R-Alabama), and Mitch McConnell, (R-Kentucky). Three of those senators – Leahy, Hatch and Grassley – were on the Judiciary Committee when Thomas’ hearings were taking place. All three are on the committee now, 27 years later.

What happened after the special hearing?

The Judiciary Committee did not change its recommendation to the full Senate, and Thomas was sworn in as an associate justice of the Supreme Court on Oct. 23,1991. He continues to serve to this day. 

He addressed the hearing in an autobiography in 2007, “My Grandfather’s Son,” saying Hill was his "most traitorous adversary.” 

In his book, he wrote of Hill, “On Sunday morning, courtesy of Newsday, I met for the first time an Anita Hill who bore little resemblance to the woman who had worked for me at EEOC and the Education Department. Somewhere along the line, she had been transformed into a conservative, devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee. In fact, she was a left-winger who'd never expressed any religious sentiments whatsoever during the time I'd known her, and the only reason why she'd held a job in the Reagan administration was because I'd given it to her.”

Hill resumed teaching to the University of Oklahoma College of Law, where she faced scorn from some university officials who tried to have her tenure revoked. She left the school five years later and took a position at the University of California, Berkeley in January 1997. She left Berkeley for a position at Brandeis University. 

In 2011, she also took a position with the law firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. She is the chairman for the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Inclusion, and is on the board of directors for the National Women's Law Center, and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in Boston. She is also on the board of trustees for Southern Vermont College and the board of governors for Tufts Medical Center. 

Hill has received numerous awards and honorary degrees.

In 1998, she wrote her autobiography, “Speaking Truth to Power.” In the book, she wrote about her testimony and addressed a question many had asked her at the time – why she had not come forward earlier.

“I assessed the situation and chose not to file a complaint,” Hill wrote. “I had every right to make that choice.  And until society is willing to accept the validity of claims of harassment, no matter how privileged or powerful the harasser, it is a choice women will continue to make.” 

A book written by David Brock in 1992 called “The Real Anita Hill” claimed that Hill was obsessed with Thomas and had lied during her testimony. Brock would later recant his statements and denounce the book as “character assassination.” He apologized to Hill. 

(Original Caption) Washington: Professor Anita Hill is sworn-in before testifying at the Senate Judiciary hearing on the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination. Miss Hill testified on her charges of alleged sexual harassment by Judge Thomas.
Photo: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

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