Capitol Hill has seen dozens of senators cycle through its halls over the years, but at least three had front row seats to a pair of Supreme Court nominations both rocked by claims of sexual misconduct separated by 27 years’ time.
Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Orrin Hatch of Utah and Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont were all members of the Senate Judiciary Committee when the panel heard Anita Hill’s blockbuster testimony in 1991 against the nomination of now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.
All three senators remain on the committee and questioned President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh earlier this month, giving the three men an unmatched perspective on two moments in history with significant similarities.
In the wake of the public surfacing of allegations by Christine Blasey Ford, who says Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s when they were both teenagers, which Kavanaugh has categorically denied – here’s what these three key senators have said:
Unlike 27 years ago, Grassley finds himself both in the Senate majority party and in the powerful chairmanship position.
CNN reached out to Grassley this week for comment on the comparison between his experience in 1991 and today. His office has not yet responded to that request and he has limited his most recent public comments to Ford’s allegations and the parameters of what a hearing on those allegations would look like.
Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt asked Grassley whether Republicans faced political dangers for having only male members on the panel to question Ford during a would-be hearing, a criticism similar to one that faced senators in the 1990s, when the entirety of the committee was men (there are now four women on the committee, all Democrats).
“You’re raising legitimate questions that are still on our minds and these details are still being worked out,” Grassley told Hewitt, adding, “We have to consider all those things. We hope that everyone in the room treats the hearing with the seriousness that it deserves, including the public.”
As of Friday, Ford’s lawyers and Senate Judiciary negotiators were still outlining how such a hearing would look, or if it would happen at all, and Grassley agreed Friday night to allow Ford more time to decide on if she would testify.
Grassley also referenced Hill’s allegations in a letter to Senate Democrats earlier this week.
“We are in the same position the Committee was in after Professor Hill’s allegations were leaked,” Grassley wrote in his letter explaining why the FBI should not investigate Ford’s claims. “After that leak, we did not ask the FBI to conduct an investigation. Instead, we reopened the hearing and assessed the testimony that was given on our own. As in 1991, it is now up to the Senate to gather and assess the relevant evidence.”
Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock described the differences between Hill’s hearing and the current situation in a statement emailed to CNN on Thursday, saying suggestions that the circumstances surrounding the current allegations “deserve the same treatment” as the ones raised in 1991 “are incorrect.”
“First, as Chairman Grassley said yesterday, unlike the allegations here, in 1991, the FBI performed an investigation before Professor Anita Hill’s allegations were made public,” Whitlock said. “After receiving her non-public allegations, then-Chairman (Joe) Biden — unlike (Judiciary Committee top Democrat Dianne) Feinstein — promptly notified the White House. At the White House’s direction, the FBI then performed a handful of interviews. Those were completed within a few days, and the White House turned those reports over to the Senate. Shortly afterwards the contents of one report was leaked to (the) public, and the hearing was reopened several days later.”
Whitlock also noted that Hill was “was a federal employee alleging misconduct by a superior on federal property.”
“The Department of Justice has said the FBI does not have jurisdiction over Dr. Ford’s allegations against Judge Kavanaugh,” he said. “They have said it is not their role to investigate the credibility of an accusation, which is what the Senate Democrats are asking for.”
The sole Democrat from the 1991 hearing still on the Judiciary Committee, Leahy joined his fellow Democratic committee members in pushing for the FBI investigation that Ford requested before testifying.
“Let’s do what we have done – certainly in the 40-some-odd years I’ve been here – (and) ask for an impartial, professional investigation, and then, once you have that back and it’s available to the Republicans and the Democrats, then have the hearing and ask the person the questions under oath,” Leahy told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Tuesday.
Leahy also signed a letter with his fellow Senate Democrats requesting that investigation, a letter that repeatedly cited how Hill’s case had been handled.
“In 1991, within a week after Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment became public, the Judiciary Committee held three days of controversial hearings,” the letter states. “These hearings took place after the White House directed the FBI to conduct an immediate investigation and that investigation was completed. Nonetheless, the Senate’s handling of those allegations – and the shameful treatment of Anita Hill – has been roundly criticized.”
Other key senators from the 1991 hearing
The most notable former member of the Judiciary Committee who questioned Hill in 1991 is probably former Vice President Joe Biden, who at the time of the hearing was a Democratic senator from Delaware who chaired the panel.
Other notable members of the hearing include then-Judiciary ranking Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, as well as Arlen Specter – who switched parties to become a Democrat in 2009 after facing a tough Republican primary.
Despite the widespread criticism of how Hill’s allegations were handled, Biden told NBC on Friday that he understood at the time the gravity of women coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment or assault and the importance of how they are treated.
“The woman should be given the benefit of the doubt and not be abused again by the system,” Biden said. “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. … She got victimized during the process.”
Biden said he thinks an FBI investigation into the allegations should be conducted and he urged the committee to learn from the lessons of the Thomas hearings, stressing they should not engage in “character assassination.”
A full list of the senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991
- Sen. Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat
- Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, Ohio Democrat
- Dennis DeConcini, Arizona Democrat
- Howell Heflin, Alabama Democrat
- Paul Simon, Illinois Democrat
- Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat
- Sen. Alan Simpson, Wyoming Republican
- Hank Brown, Colorado Republican
A full list of senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2018
- Grassley, chairman
- Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican
- Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican
- Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican
- Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican
- Sen. Ben Sasse, Nebraska Republican
- Sen. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican
- Sen. Mike Crapo, Idaho Republican
- Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican
- Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican
- Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and the ranking member on the committee
- Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois Democrat
- Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat
- Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat
- Sen. Chris Coons, Delaware Democrat
- Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat
- Sen. Mazie Hirono, Hawaii Democrat
- Sen. Cory Booker, New Jersey Democrat
- Sen. Kamala Harris, California Democrat
CNN’s Arlette Saenz, Ted Barrett and Sarah Mucha contributed to this report.