By Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor of Law, University of Maryland School of Law
Last week, most of the mainstream media seemed anxious to move on from the story of Virginia Thomas' bizarre early morning phone call to the office of Professor Anita Hill, in which she invited Hill to apologize to Thomas for "what you did with my husband." But The Washington Post's subsequent, explosive interview with Clarence Thomas' former girlfriend who has corroborated much of Anita Hill's 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, has laid to rest the idea that this story is over. And indeed this episode is deserving of more attention. It's important because there are so many people who have no real memory of the Thomas confirmation hearings, or why they were so important. In their attempt to get past addressing Mrs. Thomas' bewildering conduct, some media outlets had dismissed the Thomas hearings as a mere "he said/she said" exchange of accusations. In fact, the Thomas hearings - both before and after the statements raised by Anita Hill were made public - constituted an important watershed moment in confirmation hearings, in our understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace, and even in our racial discourse. The temptation by the media to treat this as a non-story or to minimize its significance should be resisted.
And in fact that's part of the story. Perhaps in part because the Thomas hearings were so painful, so ugly, so disturbing, Justice Thomas is often given a pass by the press. Some of his most inflammatory decisions on the Court - often in concurrence or dissent - are rarely remarked on by Supreme Court writers and bloggers. As I've suggested, even the problematic nature of some of Mrs. Thomas' political activities have been soft-pedaled by court watchers. But we should not soft-pedal history. These were the hearings at which Thomas assured the Committee that once confirmed he would hold no allegiance to the conservative views he'd advanced as a conservative darling and former member of the Reagan Administration. Long before Chief Justice John Roberts promoted the image of the "umpire" judge who just "calls balls and strikes," Thomas introduced us to another empty sports metaphor - promising that he would "strip down like a runner" and shed his earlier ideological views to be an impartial justice. Thomas also sought to reassure the Judiciary Committee and the public, that despite his earlier harsh words about civil rights leaders, and his own less than stellar stewardship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), that he felt empathy (yes, empathy) for those less fortunate. He insisted that when from his office he could see a bus of prisoners in Washington, D.C., he felt, "there but for the grace of God, go I."
But it was the hearings after Anita Hill's statements came to light that truly riveted the nation. Hill had worked for Thomas at the EEOC. Both were conservatives. Thomas had been serving on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals for little over a year when he was tapped by President George H.W. Bush who implausibly called the unremarkable Thomas, the "best candidate" for the job.