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The strikingly similar 1991 case where the US President's Supreme Court pick was almost derailed

With the allegations being levelled against Brett Kavanaugh, it is drawing comparison with the case of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas 27 years ago.

Anita Hill Testifies on Clarence Thomas Nomination Source: DPA/PA Images

A PROFESSOR IS preparing to testify against a conservative pick for the US Supreme Court, accusing him of sexually assaulting her.

The case of Christine Blasey Ford fighting the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the highest court in the United States has risen to the top of an already packed news agenda across the water, as Trump’s pick to the Supreme Court faces opposition.

She claims that Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when they were both teenagers.

Ford wants to testify before the Senate judiciary committee about her experience and, if she does so, it would be strikingly reminiscent of events 27 years ago, when a professor swore to tell the truth before an all-male panel as she levelled allegations of workplace sexual harassment against a conservative Supreme Court nominee.

As the names of Ford and Kavanaugh have hit the headlines, it stirred memories of when Anita Hill testified against Judge Clarence Thomas.

Anita Hill Testifies on Clarence Thomas Nomination Anita Hill testifying at the US Senate over Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court. Source: Arnie Sachs DPA/PA Images

The basic outline is the same, but what’s changed since 1991?

Anita Hill

Like Ford, Anita Hill went public with her allegation against a Supreme Court judge only after Thomas had been nominated by then-President George HW Bush. 

The way it went public however, was not of her choosing after claims she’d made in an interview with the FBI were leaked.

She alleged that the judge had made unwanted advances and lewd remarks to her when she worked for him at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the 1980s.

After holding initial hearings into the nomination of Thomas, Senate Justice Committee Chairman Joe Biden (remember him?) ordered hearings to recommence and Hill and Thomas to face questions.

Before tens of millions of Americans tuned in during the daytime to watch the OJ Simpson trial, around 20 million people tuned in to watch Hill give her testimony before the all-male panel of senators.

Source: CNN/YouTube

She said in her opening statement: “I declined the invitation to go out socially with him… I was very uncomfortable with the idea and told him so. I thought by saying no and explaining my reasons, my employer would abandon his social suggestions.

He continued to ask me out. On several occasions. He pressed me to justify reasons for saying no to him… My working relationship became even more strained when Judge Thomas began to use work situations to discuss sex… After a brief conversation he would turn the conversation to sexual matters… He talked about pornography he had watched. On several occasions, Thomas talked to me about his own sexual prowess.

Republicans then aggressively questioned Hill suggesting that she had made up the unwelcome advances from Thomas and tried to raise doubts about her stability.

Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings Source: DPA/PA Images

Hill’s statements were backed up by two other women, but neither of them were invited to testify before the committee.

In his response to Hill’s allegations, Thomas was defiant. When he addressed the Senate committee, he denied “each and every single allegation” made by Anita Hill, and then said there were racial elements in how he was being “discredited”.

Source: CNN/YouTube

He said: “This is a case in which this sleaze, this dirt, was searched for by staffers of members of this committee. It was then leaked to the media. And this committee and this body validated it and displayed it in prime time over our entire nation.

This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the US Senate rather than hung from a tree.

Thomas wins out

Despite the furore, Thomas won confirmation to the Supreme Court by a vote of 52 to 48, with 11 Democrats supporting him in a Senate they controlled.

But on both sides of the aisle, there was wide agreement that the questioning of Thomas and Hill was not the Senate Judiciary Committee’s finest hour. For one thing, the committee was made up of 14 white men, and there were only two women in the entire Senate at the time.

By comparison, the current committee has 11 Republicans, all men, and 10 Democrats, four of whom are women. Overall, there are now 23 women in the Senate: 17 Democrats and six Republicans.

Coming just a year before the 1992 presidential and congressional elections, the hearings were credited with helping spur the first year of the woman in American politics. A half dozen women won Senate races that year and early in 1993.

One of them, Senator Patty Murray said recently on Twitter that she first ran for the Senate “after my daughter and I watched Anita Hill being grilled by an all-male Judiciary Committee that didn’t look anything like me or so many others across the country and that wasn’t asking the questions so many of us wanted asked”.

In an interview last year, Joe Biden said he should have acted more thoroughly on Hill’s accusations.

Clarence Thomas Confirmation Hearings Biden at the Senate committee Source: DPA/PA Images

“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology,” he said.

Today, Judge Thomas still serves on the Supreme Court.

He’s cultivated a quiet persona since, barely ever saying a word during oral hearings at the court.

Even when it has come to hearings that shape vital American laws, Thomas has stayed largely silent

The process whereby he became a Supreme Court certainly tainted it for him at the time.

Thomas declined an invitation from the White House to watch as senators voted on his confirmation, and he was taking a hot bath when his wife told him he’d been confirmed 52-48.

His response, according to his memoir: “Whoop-dee damn-doo.”

Lessons from Hill

As Washington gets to grips with a scandal that is strikingly similar, the allegations made by Christine Blasey Ford against Brett Kavanaugh come in a society that has changed in many ways since 1991.

Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearing Day 2 - Washington Brett Kavanaugh Source: Sachs Ron/CNP/ABACA

Indeed, the #MeToo movement has led to sexual misconduct receiving a lot more attention now than it did back then as allegations of wrongdoing have toppled powerful men in politics, media, the arts and other fields. 

But, at the same time, President Trump has said that the FBI shouldn’t investigate the alleged attempted rape by Kavanaugh. Back in 1991, the FBI probed Hill’s claims of sexual harassment.

The similarities between the two cases are galvanising activists who want Ford’s claims to be given a full airing in the Senate. 

In a statement issued last week, Hill said: “I have seen firsthand what happens when such a process is weaponised against an accuser, and no one should have to endure that again.”

Whether Ford will get her chance to speak, or whether it would even make a difference to Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, we’ll have to wait and see.

About the author:

Sean Murray

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