Brett Kavanaugh, a Supreme Court nominee who last week appeared to be cruising toward confirmation, has suddenly found himself in the sequel to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings of 1991 that rocked Washington and vaulted the issue of sexual harassment into the national spotlight.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is now slated to hear public testimony from Kavanaugh and his accuser, much like senators 27 years ago heard additional testimony from Thomas and questioned Hill about her accusations against the then-nominee.
Longtime observers of Supreme Court confirmation fights see eerily similar parallels between Kavanaugh’s now besieged nomination and the maelstrom that engulfed Thomas in the fall of 1991, which left indelible scorch marks on the Senate.
Thomas’s accuser was also an accomplished and credible witness. She was a Yale Law School graduate who worked under him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1982 and 1983 who went on to teach at Oral Roberts University and the University of Oklahoma.
Hill’s detailed accounts of alleged harassment struck at the core of the argument Republicans at the time had made for his confirmation — that his personal character and success in overcoming an impoverished childhood made up for his short service of only one year as a judge.
Similarly, Republicans in recent months have played up Kavanaugh’s life as a community servant and family man, and were quick to highlight that he volunteered to serve food to the homeless within 48 hours of being nominated to the high court.
Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice, a liberal advocacy group that played a key role in countering Thomas’s confirmation and has been active in vetting Kavanaugh’s record, said Republicans “have projected Brett Kavanaugh as a promoter of women’s rights.”
“Years ago they portrayed Clarence Thomas as growing up in Pin Point, Ga., poor and the head of a civil rights agency,” she said. “In both cases, their portrayal of the nominee doesn’t jive with the facts.”
Conservatives also see parallels between Thomas and Kavanaugh, but only insofar as what they’re calling the unfair tactics being used by Democrats to smear the nominee.
Carrie Severino, the chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group, criticized Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel Feinstein Ban on new offshore drilling must stay in the Build Back Better Act Senate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair Jane Fonda to push for end to offshore oil drilling in California MORE (Calif.), the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, for not acting on Ford’s allegations earlier despite knowing of them since July.
Severino argued that committee Democrats, led by Feinstein, had the opportunity to pursue the sexual-assault allegations during Kavanaugh’s public hearings earlier this month and at a closed-door session when lawmakers are supposed to ask the nominee sensitive questions.
She said Democrats are “trying to replicate” the Thomas-Hill controversy but observed that Senate politics have become even more polarized over the past three decades.
Severino noted that Democrats controlled the Senate in 1991 and still scheduled a vote on Thomas’s nomination without employing a filibuster to block him. At the time, 60 votes were needed to advance a Supreme Court nominee.
Thomas narrowly won confirmation but was left embittered by the experience, which permanently tainted his reputation and awakened the nation to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of gender diversity in the male-dominated Senate.
His accuser, Hill, was also battered by the experience. Members of the all-male Judiciary Committee tore apart her character and maligned her motives.
This time around, Democrats have four women on the committee, while the GOP side is all men. Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchLobbying world Congress, stop holding 'Dreamers' hostage Drug prices are declining amid inflation fears MORE (R-Utah) and Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised On The Money — Democrats tee up Senate spending battles with GOP MORE (D-Vt.) and current Chairman Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyBipartisan lawmakers target judges' stock trading with new bill Another voice of reason retires Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — FDA moves to sell hearing aids over-the-counter MORE (R-Iowa) are the only committee members today who were on the panel during the 1991 hearings.
The Senate’s handling of Hill’s testimony provoked such outrage that it spurred a nationwide political movement the following year — “The Year of the Woman” — and helped Feinstein and other Democratic candidates, including Sen. Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurrayUnder pressure, Democrats cut back spending Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised Senate Democrats ditch Hyde amendment for first time in decades MORE (D-Wash.), win election.
“I cannot tell you of the feeling in the pit of my stomach that I think I haven’t felt in almost exactly 27 years,” said Judith Lichtman, the former president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, who was at the center of the Thomas-Hill fight.
Twenty-seven years ago, word started to leak in mid-September that Hill, a woman with an impressive résumé, was privately alleging that Thomas sexually harassed her a decade before when he was her boss at the EEOC.
Lichtman recalled that she first heard about it from a law professor at Georgetown University law school during a phone call on the night of Yom Kippur.
Thomas had completed his confirmation hearings earlier in September and appeared headed to a successful confirmation before the allegations gained traction.
Hill initially did not want to testify publicly and wanted to discuss her experiences behind closed doors in executive session with senators, according to Lichtman. Meanwhile, Republicans put up staunch resistance to having a second round of public hearings.
Ford also was reluctant to testify publicly against Kavanaugh and initially requested that Feinstein maintain her confidentiality, which Feinstein respected.
Ultimately, however, Hill testified during a marathon weekend session in mid-October, a month after her allegations began to surface publicly.
“There was huge resistance,” Lichtman recalled. “There were many, many weeks where there was great resistance to having a hearing.”
Grassley on Monday issued a statement saying “anyone who comes forward as Dr. Ford has done deserves to be heard.”
He added that in order “to provide ample transparency, we will hold a public hearing Monday to give these recent allegations a full airing.”
That appears to have satisfied Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsFunding for victims of 'Havana syndrome' to be included in Pentagon bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Uber - Biden makes his pitch as tax questions mount Emanuel defends handling of Chicago police shooting amid opposition to nomination MORE (R-Maine), a key moderate vote, who said before the additional hearings were announced that “Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh should both testify under oath before the Judiciary Committee.”
But that testimony could pose a risk to Ford, much like it did for Hill.
As Hill feared, the second round of hearings in 1991 became more a trial of her motives than Thomas’s alleged conduct.
“The hearing itself was a mockery of fairness and that cannot happen this time. We cannot allow this phony ‘check the box and now we’ll do business as usual,’ ” Lichtman said. “This very credible woman came forward with very serious allegations and there was no time nor process in place to investigate and corroborate her story."
“People did believe Anita Hill, and at every turn there was no real process to either vindicate or corroborate her very serious allegations and to look into Clarence Thomas and his behavior not only toward Anita Hill and many others willing to come forward,” she added.
Years later, some Republicans acknowledge that Hill was treated too harshly, and they said they hope the party has learned some lessons.
If senators on the Judiciary Committee cross-examine Ford as harshly as they did Hill years ago, there could be another backlash at a time when the "Me Too" movement has become a major political force.
Former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), a longtime colleague of Collins, who served in the House during the Thomas hearings, said today’s senators “could learn from the past in setting the tone and demeanor.”
She said Republicans at the time took “a very aggressive line on questioning.”