It was inevitable, from the moment Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh became public, that Kavanaugh would be compared to Justice Clarence Thomas. Writing in the New York Times on Tuesday, Anita Hill heself said “it’s impossible to miss the parallels.” In a confidential letter to her representatives, Ford accused a “stumbling drunk” Kavanaugh of holding her down and covering her mouth to muffle her calls for help while he tried to remove her bathing suit. They were both in high school at the time.
It’s widely agreed, with the benefit of almost three decades of hindsight, that Thomas’ hearings were badly bungled by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and in particular the committee’s then-chair, Sen. Joe Biden. Hill — who testified reluctantly after she was subpoenaed by the committee — was mercilessly grilled by an all-white, all-male panel of senators and smeared by Republican operatives as “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” Today, her accusations of harassment, bolstered by the accounts from three other women not permitted to testify, are regarded as highly credible. And yet, none of that matters: Thomas has a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
The Thomas hearings exposed just how woefully ill-equipped the Senate (and, for that matter, society as a whole) was to evaluate claims of sexual misconduct back in 1991. The accusation against Kavanaugh, surfacing in the midst of a historical reckoning around sexual misconduct, offers a chance for the Judiciary Committee to get it right. And while it’s clear that many sitting senators — starting with Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who was first to call for the committee vote on Kavanaugh’s nomination to be delayed — are concerned about staying on the right side of history, it’s equally clear that no one knows exactly how to do that. Even Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), one of a class of women elected to Congress in the immediate aftermath of the Thomas hearings, was unsure how to handle the accusations when they landed on her desk.
And there are important differences between the two: The accusation against Kavanaugh dates back to his teen years while the accusations against Thomas were more recent and took place in a professional setting. In 1991, the committee was aware of multiple allegations against Thomas; right now at least, the public is only aware of one against Kavanaugh. His Republican defenders have tried on a number of different methods to diminish Ford’s claims: first they cast doubt on them as anonymous and uncorroborated, then, as more details emerged, recast the alleged incident as “youthful indiscretion” and “horseplay.”
But dozens of #MeToo accounts over the past year have created a template for rebutting these tactics and verifying the kind of accusations previously dismissed as “he-said, she-said.” Ford, on the advice of her lawyer, voluntarily took a polygraph exam before coming forward, pre-empting those who would accuse her of lying. She’s produced other evidence — in the form of notes from her therapist, and the account of her husband — indicating she spoke about the incident long before Kavanaugh was floated for a seat on the highest court, anticipating Republican accusations that she’s involved in a political hit job.
On Monday, September 24th, both Kavanaugh and Ford will testify before the committee. (According to Axios, when Republican operatives asked Ford to testify, “The thinking was that she would decline.”) But how productive the hearings themselves can possibly be remains an open question.
Hill, who has spent the last three decades grappling with this issue, offered her own advice for the Senate Judiciary Committee. She notes several of the same men who questioned her in ’91 will be present to question Ford.
Here’s an excerpt of what Hill wrote in the Times:
“Refrain from pitting the public interest in confronting sexual harassment against the need for a fair confirmation hearing. Our interest in the integrity of the Supreme Court and in eliminating sexual misconduct, especially in our public institutions, are entirely compatible. Both are aimed at making sure that our judicial system operates with legitimacy.
Select a neutral investigative body with experience in sexual misconduct cases that will investigate the incident in question and present its findings to the committee. Outcomes in such investigations are more reliable and less likely to be perceived as tainted by partisanship. Senators must then rely on the investigators’ conclusions, along with advice from experts, to frame the questions they ask Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey. Again, the senators’ fact-finding roles must guide their behavior. The investigators’ report should frame the hearing, not politics or myths about sexual assault.
Do not rush these hearings. Doing so would not only signal that sexual assault accusations are not important — hastily appraising this situation would very likely lead to facts being overlooked that are necessary for the Senate and the public to evaluate. That the committee plans to hold a hearing this coming Monday is discouraging. Simply put, a week’s preparation is not enough time for meaningful inquiry into very serious charges.
Finally, refer to Christine Blasey Ford by her name. She was once anonymous, but no longer is. Dr. Blasey is not simply “Judge Kavanaugh’s accuser.” Dr. Blasey is a human being with a life of her own. She deserves the respect of being addressed and treated as a whole person.”
In April 2016, before the #MeToo movement began in earnest, Hill spoke to Rolling Stone, in advance of an HBO dramatization of the Clarence Thomas hearings, about how we should handle accusations. “The evidence is there, and we just have to have the courage, as a society, to recognize that and then make some of the hard decisions to turn that around. We’ve got to put into place the right processes, we’ve got to be able to call on women to hear their stories, and finally, we’ve got to make the decision that we’re going to reject people who behave badly, who are sexually abusive,” Hill said at the time.
“And I don’t think we have to demonize those people in every case when someone is a harasser, but we have to make decisions, like, yeah, that does disqualify you from being a Supreme Court justice if we find that you have been sexually abusive…”