With all the noise lately about Federalist Society protege Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, let’s reminisce about the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas fiasco. (This was originally published December 6, 2017.)
Anita Hill, a professor at Brandeis University, grew up in Lone Tree, Oklahoma, a speck on the map, about a hundred miles east of Oklahoma City, and thirty-some miles west of Muskogee. She graduated as valedictorian from her local high school and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree with honors from Oklahoma State University. She earned her law degree with honors from Yale Law School in 1980. In 1989, she became the first tenured black professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.
Three years later, after a nationwide fundraising campaign initiated by a feminist group, and matching state funds, the Anita F. Hill professorship was endowed at the University of Oklahoma Law School. Oklahoma legislators promptly demanded Ms. Hill’s resignation and introduced a bill to prohibit the university from accepting out-of-state donations and even attempted to close the law school. School officials attempted to revoke her tenure. After five years of this, Hill resigned. The law school defunded the professorship in 1999, the position having never been filled.
What could a person have done to provoke such reaction in her home state? Anita Hill had the temerity to testify before the 1991 Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Joseph Biden, considering Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, for whom she had worked when Thomas was in charge of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The FBI had previously questioned Hill. When that interview was leaked, the Senate committee called her to testify. She told the committee that Thomas had asked her out several times and she had always refused. His work conversations regularly addressed such topics as women having sex with animals, pornographic movies about group sex and rape, and “his own sexual prowess,” referring to himself as “Long Dong Silver,” an homage to a contemporary porn star. She also famously related his examining a can of soda on his desk and asking, “Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”
The invective directed at her came quickly and forcefully. Thomas, of course denied it and went further, saying it was “high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves.” Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said , “Hill was working in tandem with ‘slick lawyers’ and interest groups bent on destroying Thomas’ chances to join the court.” Contemporaneous opinion polls showed most people believed Thomas.
Ms. Hill took and passed, a polygraph test; Thomas refused to take a test. Four other women were waiting to testify but the committee chose not to hear them. Thomas, with all of one year’s experience as a federal judge, was confirmed. He has since distinguished himself as the least-inquisitive justice, often going months without asking a question or making a comment, and its most predictably conservative voter, including his dissent against affirmative action, something from which he benefited during his education.
A documentary film, “Anita,” about her experiences was released in 2014. HBO presented a dramatic film, “Confirmation,” starring Kerry Washington, in 2016.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)