WASHINGTON (AP) — Clarence Thomas saw it as a circus and national disgrace. Anita Hill complained that she was treated as though she were a defendant in a criminal trial.
The 1991 confirmation hearing of Thomas, accused by Hill of sexual harassment, angered people on all sides and is not recalled as one of the Senate’s proud moments.
Lessons learned from that episode will likely guide senators Thursday as they hear Christine Blasey Ford’s claims that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers. Kavanaugh denies the accusation.
Republicans are bringing in a woman who prosecutes sex crimes to ask questions, avoiding having the 11 Republican men on the committee grill the female accuser. The panel’s Democrats, criticized for weakly defending Hill in 1991, stand united against Kavanaugh.
Still, the attacks launched against Kavanaugh and Ford in the less than two weeks since her allegation first became public led Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to lament on the Senate floor Wednesday that “the past couple of weeks makes it clear that we haven’t learned much at all.”
The most obvious difference is that the Senate Judiciary Committee is no longer all white and all male, at least on the Democratic side. Four Democratic women, including Sens. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Kamala Harris of California, sit on the committee, along with Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, the lone African-American man on the panel.
The Republican side remains entirely male, which explains why the GOP is bringing in Rachel Mitchell, a sex crimes prosecutor from Arizona, to question Ford and Kavanaugh.
The makeup of the committee fed perceptions that a bunch of older men were interrogating a woman about a topic that bewildered them or, at best, made them uncomfortable.
The Republicans aggressively sought to undermine Hill’s credibility, led by accusations from Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., that Hill was lying under oath. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, discussed with Thomas the possibility that Hill had appropriated lurid passages from the novel “The Exorcist” and a court case and turned them into false allegations against Thomas. Hatch is one of three senators from 1991 who are still on the committee, along with Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
On the Democratic side, senators were criticized for being weak in their defense of Hill and their questioning of Thomas. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., acknowledged afterward that he let down liberals who had counted on him to rally Democrats. “To them I say: I recognize my own shortcomings — the faults in the conduct of my private life,” Kennedy said at Harvard University in November 1991.
The committee’s chairman at the time, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., struggled with how to preside over the hearing, the likes of which had never been seen in a court confirmation fight, recalled Charles Geyh, an Indiana University law professor who was then an informal Biden adviser. “He didn’t know how to deal with this new weird issue that sort of got foisted upon him. He resented its tawdry nature and did not realize the implications until years later,” Geyh said.
Democratic passivity does not appear to be an issue this time. The 10 committee Democrats sent President Donald Trump a letter Wednesday asking him to allow an FBI investigation into all the allegations against Kavanaugh or withdraw the nomination. Trump has so far refused to order the FBI to investigate.
The FBI did investigate Hill’s allegations and witnesses corroborating her story testified on her behalf, along with Thomas supporters who challenged what Hill alleged.
But the committee in 1991 did not hear from other women, independent of Hill, whose accounts of Thomas’ behavior toward them were similar to what Hill said. In 2018, so far, the hearing does not include testimony from two other women, one who accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her in college and the other who said she saw Kavanaugh drink to excess and engage in inappropriate contact of a sexual nature when he was in high school. He has denied both allegations.
In a crudely political sense, Republicans could decide that the short-term goal of installing Kavanaugh on the court and cementing a conservative majority is worth it, whatever the cost. Thomas, now the longest-serving justice, is the most conservative member of the court, a firm supporter of overturning the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling, expanding gun rights, lifting campaign finance restrictions and ending the consideration of race in education and other areas.
In addition, Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress for most of the past 27 years, and they have won the White House three times, though they have lost the popular vote in all but one of the seven presidential elections starting in 1992.
There are, of course, many factors in play in any election, but the political downside of Republican support for Thomas and aggressive questioning of Hill seems limited.
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