Clarence Thomas' Controversial Hearings: A Look Back at the Main Players
On Saturday, HBO will air Confirmation, starring Kerry Washington and Wendell Pierce. The movie revisits the controversial confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, which spotlighted sexual harassment in the workplace.
In 1991, civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall announced that he was retiring after 24 years on the bench.
President George H.W. Bush nominated Thomas to fill the position. Despite only being a federal judge for 16 months, Thomas was considered “well qualified” for the role, according to members of American Bar Association’s Standing Committee for the Federal Judiciary.
But during the final days of Thomas’ confirmation hearings, sexual harassment allegations by a former employee, Anita Hill, were leaked from an FBI report.
The bombshell allegations shocked America. More than 20 million people tuned in to watch the proceedings as they were broadcast live on TV.
Here’s a look at the main players and their parts in the hearings.
In 1981, then-25-year-old Anita Hill worked for Clarence Thomas as an aide at the Department of Education and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. She alleged that, during this time, Thomas repeatedly asked her out to dinner and made lewd, graphic sexual comments to her.
A decade later, she was a law professor at Oklahoma State University when she made headlines across the country.
She was subpoenaed by the Senate Judiciary Committee to share the allegations that he sexually harassed her during her two years of employment. As Hill discussed encounters she had with her former boss, she made it clear that the harassment had not been physical. She said Thomas never threatened to fire her but said that she still felt uncomfortable in her working environment.
Testifying before Congress, she recalled a lewd comment he made when he was drinking a soda.
“He got up from the table at which we were working, went over to his desk to get the Coke, looked at the can and asked: 'Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?'" she said.
At the time, she was both praised for coming forward and ridiculed.
In 2016, she told Rolling Stone: “I like to remind people that I was subpoenaed to testify, and when I answered the subpoena and I made myself available, I was treated horribly by the process. I think that should be the lesson, if the issue is sexual harassment or any number of issues that can be brought to your government and representatives.
“Citizens should have the right and should be able to exercise their obligation to provide information to processes, and they should be treated with respect and decency.”
In his 2007 autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son, Thomas called Hill his “most traitorous adversary.”
Thomas, a Yale graduate, was appointed as the Assistant Attorney General in Missouri. In 1981, he was appointed as Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, and in 1982, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
It was during these appointments that Hill worked as his aide.
In 1990, President Bush nominated Thomas for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals, where he served for 16 months before being nominated to be a Supreme Court Justice.
In the twilight of his confirmation hearing for the Supreme Court, Hill was called to testify.
During the hearing, Thomas called her allegations “a national disgrace.”
"It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves and 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,” he said.
He also denied ever speaking about pornography in the workplace.
After extensive debate, the Judiciary Committee was split 7-7. The full senate had to vote on the nomination without a recommendation from the committee and Thomas was confirmed by a 52–48 vote on October 15, 1991, the narrowest margin for approval in more than a century.
Thomas’ wife, Virginia, whom he married in 1987, supported her husband as he faced the allegations.
In the 1994 book, Resurrection: The Confirmation of Clarence Thomas by former Senator John Danforth, she said: “Here was this charge that was so against everything he had done in his public life and everything he believes in his private and personal thoughts, a charge being exposed and discussed by what looked like rational people, and it was killing him.
“Somebody was trying to destroy him and that was the major concern. He kept saying why are they trying to destroy me? He kept asking that question over and over again.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee
The Senate Judiciary Committee led by future Vice President Joe Biden featured a who’s who of U.S. senators.
Ted Kennedy, Howard Metzenbaum, Dennis DeConcini, Patrick Leahy, Howell Heflin, Paul Simon, Herber Kohl, Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson, Charles Grassley, Arlen Spector and Hank Brown all were on board for the confirmation hearing.
The committee, which was ultimately divided on the decision, took heat after Hill’s allegations – which were supposed to remain confidential – were leaked.
Biden, the chairman of the committee, addressed the issues days before Thomas was confirmed.
“Some have asked how we could have the U.S. Senate vote on Judge Thomas' nomination and leave Senators in the dark about Professor Hill's charges,” he said. “To this, I answer, how could we have forced Professor Hill against her will into the blinding light where you see her today.
“I am deeply sorry that our actions in this respect have been seen by many across this country as a sign that this committee does not take the charge of sexual harassment seriously. We emphatically do. I hope we all learn from the events of the past week.”
In Arlen Spector’s autobiography, Passion For Truth, Biden said: “I was against him from day one.” Biden however, never wrote about the Thomas hearings in his own autobiography, Promises to Keep, which was published in 2008 when he was a running mate with President Obama.
In an interview with the Death, Sex and Money podcast in 2014, Alan Simpson said: “I’d had a wife who’d had much more harassment than Anita Hill. And that’s when I lost my marbles. I thought, ‘What is this? I mean, for God’s sake, what did he do?’ Well, nothing. ‘Did he touch you?’ ‘No.’ ‘What is it?’ ‘He wanted to talk about Long Dong Silver and pubic hair and coke cans.’ ‘Is that it? Is that it?’ ’Yes, it is. I wanted you to be aware of his behavior.’ And so I was a monster. I was just pissed to the core.”
In a 2010 interview with CNN, Hatch said: “I can tell you Clarence Thomas was telling the truth. I believe that Anita Hill was an excellent witness. I think she actually believed and talked herself into believing what she said.”
While support for both Thomas and Hill was divided, on October 15, 1991, Thomas was confirmed to the Supreme Court, becoming the second African American in history to fill a seat on the highest court in the land.
The case spotlighted the male dominated political landscape and workplace.
A study by George Mason University found that after the Thomas hearings, awards to sexual harassment victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled between 1991 and 1996, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.
According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996.
In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become the first woman confirmed to the Supreme Court after it was established in 1789.