As the nation awaits the resolution of another woman confronting another Supreme Court nominee with sexual allegations from the past, another similarity has emerged: the credibility of the Senate vetting process may be shot.
In 1991, after the Senate Judiciary Committee faltered in its initial handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment complaint against Clarence Thomas, it reopened the confirmation hearings. The result was a spectacle of senators’ charges and cross-charges as they seemed locked in their partisan views without regard for the facts.
“Anita Hill will be sucked right into the very thing she wanted to avoid most,” Sen. Alan Simpson, a Wyoming Republican who supported Thomas, warned when Hill’s complaint first became public. “She will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed, real harassment, different than the sexual kind. Just plain old Washington variety harassment, which is pretty unique in itself.”
Simpson likely was not referring to the Judiciary Committee on which he sat, or the grilling he would give Hill days later. But that’s what many people made of the Hill onslaught and what became a defining cultural moment, leading to a record number of women elected to Congress a year later.
Now, as Christine Blasey Ford has alleged that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers three decades ago, the committee’s continued shortcomings are plain.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, has given Ford, a Palo Alto University professor, until Friday at 10 a.m. to say whether she will testify to the committee. She has asked first for an FBI investigation of her claim. Senate Democrats are backing up that request and insisting, too, that other witnesses should be called.
Ford appears to be in a no-win situation.
“Dr. Ford was reluctantly thrust into the public spotlight only two days ago,” Lisa Banks, her lawyer, said in a statement Wednesday night. “She is currently unable to go home, and is receiving ongoing threats to her and her family’s safety. Fairness and respect for her situation dictate that she should have time to deal with this.”
Senators are at partisan cross-purposes, lacking any mechanism that would appear neutral to hear out such allegations. Whether there will be a real attempt at the truth remains in doubt, as the lives of the accuser and accused have collapsed into caricatures.
Any possible hearing, as well as the fate of Kavanaugh’s nomination, is likely to be more politically charged than the 1991 Hill-Thomas clash because of increased polarization in Washington and the upcoming midterm elections.
Similarities between then and now
Even separated by 27 years and with a transformed committee, several similarities exist between the Thomas and Kavanaugh confirmations. Both times, women brought confidential accusations to the Senate Judiciary Committee, senators were slow to act and the charges became public through leaks and news reports.
The situations turned to chaos.
Hill, who is also a professor, now at Brandeis University, alleged that when she worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission he harassed her with talk of pornography and references to women’s breasts and men’s penises. Judiciary Committee members were aware of Hill’s complaint, but they did not seek her testimony until information she had relayed to committee staff became the subject of news reports.
Ford alleges that at a private party in the early 1980s Kavanaugh pushed her into a bedroom and tried to remove her clothes. She said that when she attempted to scream he covered her mouth.
Ford’s July 30 letter detailing her allegations against Kavanaugh, a 12-year veteran of a prominent US appeals court, had been given to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, but the senior Judiciary Committee Democrat publicly acknowledged the letter and passed it on to the FBI only last week.
Responding to criticism about the delay, particularly from President Donald Trump, Feinstein wrote Wednesday on Twitter that Ford “did not want her story of sexual assault to be public. She requested confidentiality and I honored that. It wasn’t until the media outed her that she decided to come forward. You may not respect women and the wishes of victims, but I do.”
Kavanaugh has issued statements categorically denying Ford’s accusation and said he has “never done anything like what the accuser describes – to her or to anyone.”
Committee on trial
In 1991, as now, the question is how the committee resolves an allegation against a nominee for a lifetime appointment on America’s highest court. Trump chose Kavanaugh to succeed retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist conservative who was the swing vote on an ideologically divided court.
The second round of hearings for Thomas became a forum for something other than facts and getting to the truth. Republican senators questioned Hill’s motives and her memories. Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is one of three senators who were on the committee in 1991 and remain today, suggested that Hill had concocted some of her claims, for example, including by taking details from the book “The Exorcist.”
For his part, Thomas categorically denied Hill’s claims and called the proceeding “a circus” as well as a “high-tech lynching.” His nomination was approved 52-48.
Unlike now, Democrats were running the Judiciary Committee, and then-Chairman Joe Biden declined to call before the committee other women who claimed to have similar experiences related to Thomas. The sexually charged nature of the ordeal, combined with racial elements absent from today’s episode, seemed to overwhelm the committee. Late last year Biden said he owed Hill an apology.
Hill wrote in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday that the Senate Judiciary Committee had failed to take her claim seriously. She recommended that the panel call for an independent investigation of Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh.
“That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement,” wrote Hill.
Committee blame game
Chairman Grassley has signaled that with or without Ford’s testimony he will push for a committee vote next week that would send the Kavanaugh nomination to the full Senate. The committee is made up of 11 Republicans and 10 Democrats – just as the Senate has a narrow 51-49 Republican majority.
Grassley and Feinstein have swapped accusations throughout the vetting of Kavanaugh, and in a letter late Wednesday, Grassley blamed her for the state of play. “You chose to sit on the allegations until a politically opportune moment,” he asserted. “I cannot overstate how disappointed I am in this decision. It has caused me to have to reopen the hearings for the fifth day of testimony, when we easily could have – and should have – raised these issues before or during the first four days of the hearing.”
Noting that Feinstein said she wanted to protect Ford’s anonymity, Grassley said the allegations could have been raised to him or Kavanaugh while still shielding Ford’s identity.
A day earlier Feinstein had noted other fault-finding by Republicans, who were suggesting that Ford might have mixed up Kavanaugh with some other teenage boy.
“Well, this is really kind of what Me Too is all about, isn’t it?” she said to CNN’s Manu Raju. “That’s sort of the first thing that happens. It’s the woman’s fault. This is not the woman’s fault.”