Will History Repeat Itself? Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas

 Anita Hill testifying during now-Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 ( source )

Anita Hill testifying during now-Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 (source)

 

The news cycle, which for the past few months has centered around the Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the sexual assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh, has been dramatic and disquieting. It has also been eerily familiar. Congress was tested in a nearly identical way almost thirty years ago. It failed miserably.

In July of 1991, Clarence Thomas was nominated by President George H. W. Bush to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, filling the seat vacated by the retirement of Thurgood Marshall. Later that same month, word began to spread around Washington of sexual harassment allegations against Thomas. The woman who brought these allegations forward was Anita Hill, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma’s school of law. Professor Hill had previously worked at two government agencies with Thomas as her supervisor. During that time, she alleged that Thomas repeatedly made sexual advances and subjected her to revolting, lewd language. As the Senate hearings on Thomas by the Judiciary Committee began, Professor Hill spoke with the FBI and a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee regarding her allegations, but maintained her desire to remain anonymous to the public. However, the statements given by Hill to the Judiciary subcommittee were leaked to the press in October, and the Judiciary committee, chaired by then Senator Joe Biden, called for the hearings to restart with Professor Hill forced to testify in public after being subpoenaed.

It was during this second round of hearings that one of the most embarrassing debacles in American history occurred, as the all male Judiciary Committee humiliated and bullied Anita Hill on national television.

 
 
 Senator Orrin Hatch holding a copy of  The Exorcist  during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 ( source )

Senator Orrin Hatch holding a copy of The Exorcist during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings in 1991 (source)

Americans watched as Professor Hill was forced repeatedly by Joe Biden to describe Thomas’s vulgar harassments in agonizing (and most would argue unnecessary) detail, as Senator Orrin Hatch waved around a copy of “The Exorcist” and accused Hill of fabricating her accusations based on the events in the horror novel, as Anita Hill’s credibility and mental stability were called into question by senator after senator. Here was a woman who, testifying against her will, was subjected to the same kind of demeaning and domineering callousness that Clarence Thomas is alleged to have inflicted, but this time by elected officials of the federal government, for the whole world to see.

Now, in 2018, since President Donald Trump nominated Brett Kavanaugh to fill Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy’s seat on the Supreme Court, an uncannily similar series of events are unfolding. Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, has alleged that Kavanaugh, along with a friend, attempted to rape her when she was 15 years old. Blasey Ford has already experienced many of the same types of mistreatment Anita Hill endured. Her identity has been made public, though she hoped to remain anonymous, and she has already faced opposition and disbelief from congressional Republicans, even though she has not yet had an opportunity to testify.

This country needs to confront the severe mistakes that were made thirty years ago during the Anita Hill hearings. This is especially important considering that three of the senators who savaged Anita Hill, Orrin Hatch, Chuck Grassley, and Patrick Leahy, remain on the Judiciary committee, and another, Joe Biden, is a prospective presidential candidate for 2020. What we demand from our representatives in the Senate is a fair and objective hearing where Christine Blasey Ford can be afforded what Anita Hill was so viciously deprived of. While Clarence Thomas continues to sit on the highest court in this country, the Republican-controlled Senate has been given a chance to get things right the second time around. The coming weeks will reveal whether or not they will. Let’s hope our leaders learn from history, rather than repeat it.