Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The confirmation hearings of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas took a dramatic turn when a law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual harassment. The nation was riveted by the sensational allegations, which became the focus of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing broadcast to the nation on network television.

Summary of Event

In 1967, Thurgood Marshall, the famed former civil rights lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement National Association for the Advancement of Colored People of Colored People (NAACP), became the first African American appointed to the position of justice of the United States. Marshall retired in 1991, leading Republican president George H. W. Bush to face a difficult political situation. While some within the Republican Party pressured him to continue Ronald Reagan’s judicial legacy by nominating a conservative, the president did not want to be perceived as racist in denying the so-called black seat on the Court to an African American. As an opponent of racial quotas, however, Bush could not select someone solely on the basis of his or her race. However, Clarence Thomas, a jurist with solid conservative credentials, proved an ideal candidate; and he was black. [kw]Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal, Justice Clarence (Oct. 11-13, 1991) Thomas, Clarence Hill, Anita Supreme Court, U.S.;Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Sexual harassment;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Thomas, Clarence Hill, Anita Supreme Court, U.S.;Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Sexual harassment;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] [g]United States;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Law and the courts;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Women’s issues;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Racism;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Government;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Politics;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Sex;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Radio and television;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Social issues and reform;Oct. 11-13, 1991: Justice Clarence Thomas’s Confirmation Hearings Create a Scandal[02530] [c]Communications and media;

Anita Hill testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 11, 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Bush believed Thomas’s race would keep powerful civil rights groups from opposing the nomination. Furthermore, Thomas’s ideology would satisfy the president’s core constituency. On July 1, 1991, Bush nominated Thomas, indicating that race had “nothing to do” with his selection of Thomas.

Thomas was born into poverty, raised by his grandparents, and educated by Roman Catholic nuns in rural Pin Point, Georgia. He graduated with honors from Holy Cross College in 1971 and earned a law degree from Yale University in 1974. After a series of jobs with the federal government—including the Department of Education (DOE) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where Thomas, as chairman, often found himself at odds with civil rights groups—he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1990.

The confirmation hearings began rather uneventfully before the Senate Judiciary Committee on September 10, 1991. The hearings, however, would not conclude that way. Thomas’s supporters emphasized his rags-to-riches story, his career as a governmental employee, and most important, his belief that a judge’s role was not to make decisions based upon personal opinions or interests, but rather to interpret and apply the choices made by the legislative and executive branches. Thomas’s opponents decried his perceived lack of qualifications: a limited career in law practice—only five years—and even less judicial experience—a mere eighteen months. Twelve members of the American Bar Association American Bar Association (ABA) Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary declared Thomas to be “qualified,” two deemed him “not qualified,” and one member abstained. No one on the committee believed him to be “well qualified.” This was the lowest rating the committee had ever given a U.S. Supreme Court nominee.

Prominent interest groups criticized Thomas for failing to comprehend and appreciate the history and vestiges of racism. The NAACP, by a vote of 49-1, along with most civil rights organizations, formally opposed his nomination. Numerous senators disparaged him for his conservative judicial philosophy and affinity for natural law, to which, they believed, Thomas might subordinate constitutional principles. That philosophy, opponents feared, could result in a narrowing of abortion rights, affirmative action programs, and the constitutional role of the judiciary in relation to the elected branches of government.

During the hearings, Thomas ran from his record, playing down or disavowing previous statements on privacy rights, affirmative action, and other controversial topics. Though pressed repeatedly on abortion, Thomas claimed that he had “never” debated the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, Roe v. Wade (1973) one of the most controversial legal decisions of the twentieth century. For the most part, the administration’s confirmation strategy—to keep the focus on his race and his rags-to-riches story—shielded the nominee from a more searching criticism of his judicial philosophy.

The Senate Judiciary Committee vote was divided 7-7 on the nomination, which was then forwarded to the full Senate without a recommendation. Nevertheless, Thomas appeared on his way to confirmation until October 6, when a lurid and explosive allegation surfaced—that the nominee had sexually harassed Anita Hill, an attorney, law professor, and former subordinate of Thomas at the DOE and the EEOC. (A Senate Judiciary Committee staff member had leaked to the press Hill’s affidavit to the Department of Justice accusing Thomas of sexual harassment.) After Thomas requested a delay so that the committee could investigate the allegations fully, the hearings reopened on October 11. This time, the Senate and the public paid serious attention to the hearings, which were broadcast nationally on network television.

Thomas testified first, categorically denying the allegations. Additionally, Thomas said that Hill had, after the alleged harassment, followed him from the DOE to the EEOC, asked him repeatedly for letters of recommendation, and contacted him by telephone on numerous occasions. Hill’s testimony followed. She accused Thomas of pressuring her to accept his invitations to go out with him, and testified that while at work, Thomas would describe to her in detail acts he had seen in pornographic Pornography;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] films, including women having sex with animals, group sex, rape scenes, and individuals with large penises and large breasts having sex. She testified that Thomas, in graphic detail, often would inform her of his “sexual prowess,” which included a larger than average penis and a willingness to engage in oral sex.

Clarence Thomas, center, is sworn in as associate justice of the United States by Justice Byron White on October 23, 1991.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Thomas responded the following day, once again denying the allegations. He characterized the accusations as resting on racial stereotypes, and described the committee hearings as a “circus,” a “national disgrace,” and a “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.”

A limited number of witnesses testified for both sides. Some supported Hill’s testimony and others spoke in defense of Thomas, emphasizing his professionalism and integrity. In the end, the committee concluded the hearings without a determination as to the allegations. Regardless, the Senate confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52-48 on October 15, the closest vote ever for a successful Supreme Court nominee. Eleven Democrats joined forty-one Republicans in support of the nomination; two Republicans joined forty-six Democrats voting in opposition. On October 23, Thomas was sworn in as the 106th associate justice of the United States.

Impact

Public opinion on Thomas was closely divided even before Hill made her claims of sexual harassment. Nevertheless, it was widely believed that Thomas would be confirmed. Commentators speculated that some undecided senators, especially Democrats, would be reluctant to cast a vote against an African American who had lived a Horatio Alger-type life, achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and education.

The allegations exacerbated an already existing division within the country and in the Senate. Supporters of Thomas were outraged at the media’s stereotypical portrayal of him as a black man incapable of controlling his sexual appetite. Some depicted Hill as a vindictive, perhaps spurned, woman bent on destroying Thomas’s career for personal, and perhaps even political, reasons. To Thomas’s opponents, the allegations supported their claim that the nominee was unqualified, both professionally and personally, for the position. Many applauded Hill for her strong stand against sexual harassment, a stand that increased the nation’s consciousness of harassment in the workplace. Linguist Robin T. Lakoff, in an article analyzing the discourse of the hearings, wrote that Hill’s testimony forced the nation to define sexual harassment, to face sexual harassment as a serious legal issue, and to acknowledge that women have every right to define and discuss male behavior before a public audience.

The hearings were among the most extraordinary in the history of nominations to the Court. No previous hearings had included so much lurid and personally explosive accusations; nor had any past hearing garnered such media attention. As a result of the scandal, senatorial access to Federal Bureau of Investigation reports of judicial nominees is now limited.

Additionally, the hearings turned out to be the opening salvo for a number of sexual exposés during the 1990’s, including that of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, with both parties utilizing personal accusations to harm political opponents.

Thomas became one of the most widely recognized justices on the Supreme Court. This is true not because of his conservative judicial philosophy or decisions on the bench but rather for the accusations of sexual harassment that surfaced during his confirmation hearings. Thomas, Clarence Hill, Anita Supreme Court, U.S.;Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Sexual harassment;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;and Clarence Thomas[Thomas]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brock, David. The Real Anita Hill. New York: Free Press, 1993. Unsympathetic portrait of Thomas’s accuser, concluding that she was not truthful in her testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Author later recanted his research and thesis in this book, asserting that it was partially fabricated and meant to disgrace Hill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Comiskey, Michael. Seeking Justices: The Judging of Supreme Court Nominees. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Comprehensive account of the nomination and confirmation process of presidential appointees to the Supreme Court. An entire chapter is devoted to Thomas’s confirmation battle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forrell, Caroline A., and Donna M. Matthews. A Law of Her Own: The Reasonable Woman as a Measure of Man. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Study suggesting reforms that would take better account of women’s experiences in defining sexual harassment and other such legal terms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lakoff, Robin Tolmach. “Sexual Harassment on Trial: The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Narrative(s).” In Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, edited by Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Lakoff, a linguistics professor, examines the wordplay of the Hill/Thomas hearing. A richly detailed analysis of the politics of language and the language of politics that helped define the hearing.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mayer, Jane, and Jill Abramson. Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Written by investigative reporters, an account of the distortions surrounding Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court and the Bush administration’s smear campaign to discredit Anita Hill. Concludes that Thomas lied when he denied Hill’s accusations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Clarence. My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir. New York: Harper, 2007. Autobiography covering Thomas’s life from his early days in poverty in rural Georgia to his investiture on the Supreme Court. Roughly one-third of the book is devoted to his nomination and confirmation.

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