The confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, which became a nationally televised spectacle after charges of sexual harassment were made against Thomas by Anita Hill.
After the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the Court, President George R. Bush sought to fill the vacancy with another African American. Marshall, however, had been a leading advocate of the Civil Rights movement and the last staunchly liberal justice from the Warren era. Bush’s nominee, Clarence Thomas, would be his predecessor’s political and philosophical opposite.
Thomas was a Yale graduate and possessed a distinguished resume, including the chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and service as a judge on the federal court of appeals. He was also one of a number of black intellectuals who challenged the merits of affirmative action. Critics charged that his tenure at the EEOC had been marked by a reluctance to pursue civil rights complaints, and his judicial record demonstrated his willingness to throw out many of the liberal decisions of the earlier Supreme Court. These were political concerns, however, in a political climate that favored Thomas’s views, and no charge of unethical conduct stood up under investigation.
Anita Hill had served under Thomas at the EEOC and had maintained an amicable relationship with her former boss. During the judiciary committee’s confirmation investigation, Hill confided that Thomas had pressured her for dates and made crude, sexually charged remarks to her while he was her boss. This information was leaked to the media after the judiciary committee had voted to send the nomination to the full Senate. A second hearing was convened to examine the charges.
On October 11, the first day of the second round of hearings, Thomas angrily denied the charges, and he was treated with deference by the committee. Hill, however, was barraged with accusations and insinuations by senators and witnesses. Senator Joseph Biden seemed unable to prevent the degeneration of the televised proceedings into a quasi-judicial brawl.
Thomas’s characterization of the second hearing as a “high-tech lynching” provoked the greatest reaction from the African American community, outraging many blacks with the implication that blacks themselves and their liberal white allies were figuratively lynching an “uppity” black because of his conservativism. The viciousness of the attacks on Hill, for feminists, seemed to illustrate perfectly the very reason most victims of sexual harassment do not bring charges against their harassers.
Thomas, though confirmed, began his service on the Supreme Court tainted by Hill’s accusation. Judiciary hearings operate without standards of evidence or the rules that govern court proceedings. Biden’s committee could not determine the truth of the matter but could merely vote based on their impression of Thomas’s character and the political desirability of seating him on the Court.
Brock, David. The Real Anita Hill. New York: Free Press, 1993. Davis, Richard. Electing Justice: Fixing the Supreme Court Nomination Process. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Greenya, John. Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story. Ft. Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2001. Thomas, Andrew Peyton. Clarence Thomas: A Biography. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001. Thomas, Clarence. Confronting the Future: Selections from the Senate Confirmation Hearings and Prior Speeches. Introduction by L. Gordon Crovitz. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1992.
Nominations to the Court
Public opinion re the Court
Senate Judiciary Committee