Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addresses the Federalist Society in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007, where he spoke about his new book and took questions from the audience. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
HBO aired Confirmation tonight, and social media is buzzing
By Dr. Michael O’Malley and Dr. Suzanne Smith
Professors of History and Art History
George Mason University
In 1991, Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to be appointed to the United States Supreme Court, decided to retire. Throughout his life, Justice Marshall epitomized an ideal of leadership in the legal fight for Civil Rights. In the 1950s, he led the NAACP’s historic battle against racial segregation in the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka case, which sought to desegregate the public schools. When the case went before the Supreme Court in May 1954, the Justices found Marshall’s arguments convincing and ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Chief Justice Earl Warren argued that separating school children on the basis of race “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.” The landmark decision was a major catalyst for the modern Civil Rights movement and gave Thurgood Marshall national prominence as an advocate for Civil Rights. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed him to the Supreme Court.
Twenty-four years later, when Justice Marshall decided to retire, a decidedly more conservative political atmosphere dominated national politics. Republican President George Bush was in the White House following the eight-year administration of President Ronald Reagan. President Bush saw Justice Marshall’s retirement as an opportunity to appoint a more conservative judge to the Supreme Court. His choice was Clarence Thomas, a forty-three year old, conservative, African-American from Pinpoint, Georgia. Thomas would maintain the racial makeup of the Court, yet would add another conservative voice on decisions involving Affirmative Action and abortion.
President Bush’s nomination of Clarence Thomas was instantly controversial. Many African-American and Civil Rights organizations including: the NAACP, the National Bar Association, and the Urban League, opposed the Thomas nomination. These organizations feared that Thomas’s conservative stance on issues such as Affirmative Action would reverse the Civil Rights gains that Justice Marshall had fought so hard to achieve. Women’s groups including the National Organization for Women were equally concerned that Clarence Thomas, if appointed to the high court, would rule against legal abortion. The legal community also voiced apprehension about Thomas’s clear lack of experience since he had only served two years as a federal judge.
Despite these voices of dissent, the Thomas nomination proceeded to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearings. The first few days of the hearings were relatively uneventful. When asked about his stance on legal abortion, Thomas claimed that he had not formulated an opinion and the issue was dropped. After a few more days of outside testimony, it appeared as if the Senate committee would easily confirm the Thomas nomination. The committee split its vote, however–seven to seven, and the nomination went to the Senate without a clear recommendation.
When the nomination moved to the floor of the Senate, it took a sudden and dramatic turn when Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, came forward with accusations that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her. Hill had worked for Thomas years earlier when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission. Hill charged that Thomas harassed her with inappropriate discussion of sexual acts and pornographic films after she rebuffed his invitations to date him. A media frenzy quickly arose around Hill’s allegations and Thomas’s denials. When Thomas testified about Hill’s claims before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he called the hearings, “a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks.” The incident became one person’s word against another’s. In the end, the Senate voted 52-48 to confirm Clarence Thomas as associate justice of the Supreme Court.
To the many people who believed Anita Hill’s claims or opposed the Thomas nomination on other grounds, Thomas’s appointment was a defeat. Yet, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy had other long-term consequences beyond Justice Thomas’s life-term on the Supreme Court. Foremost, national awareness about sexual harassment in the workplace heightened considerably. According to Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filings, sexual harassment cases have more than doubled, from 6,127 in 1991 to 15,342 in 1996. Over the same period, awards to victims under federal laws nearly quadrupled, from $7.7 million to $27.8 million.
Another repercussion of the Hill-Thomas controversy was the increased involvement of women in politics. The media heralded the 1992 election year as the “Year of the Woman” when a record number of women ran for public office and won. In the U.S. Senate, eleven women ran and five won seats–including one incumbent candidate. In the House of Representatives, twenty-four women won new seats. Many commentators saw this increase as a direct reaction to the Thomas nomination. His appointment dismayed many women, who felt that Anita Hill’s allegations were not taken seriously by a Senate that was 98% male.
In the end, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy acted as a flash point that illuminated many of the central tensions of life in late twentieth-century America. Justice Thomas’s nomination to replace Justice Marshall prompted new retrospection on the accomplishments of the modern Civil Rights movement and sparked more debate about Affirmative Action policies. Anita Hill’s accusations heightened public awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace and women’s unequal representation in the political sphere. The media frenzy surrounding the event marked a new trend of obsessive and often tabloid-style coverage that has only worsened through subsequent news events such as the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton sex scandal. Historians will always turn to the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas controversy to understand race relations, gender politics, and media influences in America at the brink of the twenty-first century.