Tuesday, October 11, 2011

He Said, She Said

Twenty years ago, the nation watched as the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas — while outside opposition to his appointment was growing, based on his past positions on topics like affirmative action and abortion.

Many Democrats suspected that Thomas had been selected to replace retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall solely because both were black and Thomas would maintain the Supreme Court's existing racial balance. But Marshall and Thomas certainly didn't share the same views, and groups like the NAACP and NOW feared a shift in the Court's ideological balance.

Absent something truly troubling, though, most presidents' Supreme Court nominees are approved, regardless of how they may affect things ideologically, so Thomas seemed sure to receive the Senate's routine blessing — until this day in 1991.

For it was on this day 20 years ago that something troubling did emerge that threatened to derail Thomas' confirmation.

On Oct. 11, 1991, University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill walked into the hearing room and dropped a bombshell.

As Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post recalled recently, it was "both riveting and horrifying."

A former colleague, Hill testified that Thomas made sexual comments to her on the job and pressured her to go out with him. She wasn't sure if his conduct would meet the legal conditions for sexual harassment, but she said that, in her opinion, it was illegal.

That wasn't the issue, though, she said. She wanted to focus on the nature of Thomas' behavior and the fact that it had been inappropriate — even if it was not explicitly illegal.

And, after she related her version of events, no one really knew what to expect. But everyone had an opinion.

If you believed Thomas, it followed logically that you thought Hill was lying. If you believed Hill, the logical conclusion was that Thomas was lying.

There was simply no way to reconcile the two as some kind of bizarre misunderstanding that could be easily clarified — as in, "Well, yes, senator, as a matter of fact I did make a rather casual remark about a pubic hair on a Coca–Cola can, but what I really meant by that was ..."

I was in graduate school at the time, studying journalism and working part time as a teaching assistant, and I remember watching my students, especially the girls, as they listened to the radio broadcasts of the hearings in the editing lab, where I worked on weekday afternoons.

It had been a newsy year, what with the whirlwind Gulf War and all that, but this was a different kind of topic for the girls in my news editing lab. They couldn't necessarily relate to the experience of fighting in a war on foreign soil, even though many people their age (and, almost certainly, people with whom they had been in high school only a few years earlier) were serving their country in that part of the world, but the hearing's subject matter was something to which they could relate, something with which many of them had dealt at one time or another and in one form or another, even at that tender phase of their lives.

And they didn't like what they were hearing from someone who could serve on the Court for an indefinite period of time (in fact, Thomas is still on the Court nearly two decades after being confirmed and, at the age of 63, conceivably could be on the Court for two more).

When the full Senate voted on Thomas' nomination shortly after Hill's testimony, the girls in my lab listened intently to the radio. Nearly all seemed dismayed when the Senate approved that nomination by the closest margin in more than 100 years.

We never discussed that event in depth, but I overheard snippets of their conversations, and I have often wondered what kind of message that confirmation vote sent to the young women of America.

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