Ronald Reagan SCOTUS pick, Douglas Ginsburg, was nominated to fill a vacancy after the retirement of Lewis F. Powell in October 1987. But, he soon withdrew from consideration after the press uncovered reports of marijuana use that the F.B.I. had failed to unearth.
In 1991, President George H. W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed retiring Justice Thurgood Marshall. Senate hearings on his confirmation were initially completed with Thomas’s good character being presented as the primary qualification for the high court because he had only been a judge for slightly more than one year. There had been little organized opposition to Thomas’s nomination, and his confirmation seemed assured until a report of a private interview of Anita Hill by the FBI was leaked to the press.
The all-male Senate hearings were then reopened, and Hill was called to publicly testify. Hill said in the October 1991 televised hearings that Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When questioned on why she followed Thomas to the second job after he had already allegedly harassed her, she said working in the civil rights field had always been her ambition. She only realized later in her life that this ambitious venture was a poor judgment and she explained that “at that time, it appeared that the sexual overtures … had ended.”
Hill said that Thomas asked her to date during her two years of employment as his assistant, and, after she declined his requests, discussed sexual subjects while on the job. Hill:
“He spoke about such matters as women having sex with animals and films showing group sex or rape scenes.”
Hill said that Thomas graphically described his own sexual prowess and the details of his anatomy. Hill recounted an instance in which Thomas examined a can of Coke on his desk and asked:
“Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?”
During the hearings, Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, always a charmer, claimed that:
“Hill was working in tandem with ‘slick lawyers’ and interest groups bent on destroying Thomas’ chances to join the court.”
Four female witnesses reportedly waited in the wings to support Hill’s credibility, but they were never called because of a compromise deal between Republicans and the Senate Judiciary Committee Chair, Joe Biden.
“My biggest regret was, I didn’t know how I could shut you off because you were a senator and you were attacking Anita Hill’s character. Under the Senate rules, I can’t gavel you down and say you can’t ask that question, although I tried. Hill got victimized again during the process.”
“I never attacked her. I supported her. I believed her from the beginning and I voted against Clarence Thomas.”
Hill agreed to take a polygraph test. While senators and other authorities noted that polygraph results cannot be relied upon and are inadmissible in courts, Hill’s results did support her statements. Thomas did not take a polygraph test. He made a vehement and complete denial. Sound familiar?
After extensive debate, the Senate confirmed Thomas to SCOTUS by a vote of 52–48, the narrowest margin since the 19th century.
Thomas continues to malign Hill. In his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son (2007), he calls Hill his “most traitorous adversary”. He described her as touchy and prone to overreact, and her work at the EEOC as mediocre. He acknowledged that three former EEOC employees had backed Hill’s story, but said they had all left the agency on bad terms. He also wrote:
“Hill is a left-winger who has never expressed any religious sentiments whatsoever … and the only reason why she’d held a job in the Reagan administration was because I’d given it to her.”
In October 2010, Thomas’s wife Virginia Thomas, a conservative activist, left a voicemail at Hill’s office asking that Hill apologize for her 1991 testimony. Hill alerted the FBI. After being informed that the call was indeed from Virginia Thomas, Hill said:
“I testified truthfully about my experience and I stand by that testimony.”
Hill is currently a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University.
She is played by Kerry Washington in the HBO film Confirmation (2016).