20 Years Later: Anita Hill and the Justice Thomas Confirmation Hearings

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Nina Totenberg, NPR legal affairs correspondent, talked about the ripple effects of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas' Senate confirmation hearings and Anita Hill's accusations against him twenty years ago.

Twenty years ago, NPR's Nina Totenberg broke the big story; Anita Hill had accused Supreme Court Justice nominee (now Justice) Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Hill had previously worked for Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in Washington. The story came out just days before a vote was scheduled for Thomas's confirmation and as a result, the hearings were re-opened.

So, why didn't Anita Hill come forward sooner? Nina Totenberg said it's probably because she didn't want that kind of attention.

I think she told investigators on the Judiciary Committee about it and I think they contacted her, but [she] wasn't really interested initially in making an affidavit. She just wanted, generally, this investigated and you can't do that in American life. If you're going to make a charge you have to put your name on it and I think that's what one or more Senators told her and she finally gave them an affidavit.

Senator Joe Biden (now V.P. Biden) was chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time. Totenberg remembered him mentioning some "nefarious charges" against Thomas but that they wouldn't be addressed. These "charges" peaked her interest so she dug a little deeper.

That finally produced the information about Anita Hill and when I called her, she initially did not want to talk to me. She knew why I was calling. I had done some research about her and found her to be a person of good repute, not some cook. She said she would only talk to me if I got her affidavit and I think she thought that I wouldn't get the affidavit, but that's a little like waving the red flag in front of a bull!

If this story had crossed her desk today, Totenberg said the one thing she'd do differently is she wouldn't have sat on it so long. Initially, she'd held the story for two days waiting for comment from Senator Biden. She wanted to know why the Judiciary Committee had not explored these charges. He never called her back.

I couldn't get a response. I called everybody on his staff I could think of...and I finally got a couple of other members of the Judiciary Committee to talk to me. One on the record, Senator Simon, and at least another one off the record, I think. And I said, well I can't wait for the chairman, if he's not going to talk, I'm not going wait and then we did the story. [Now] I wouldn't have waited. I would have said, you've got a half an hour.

After all these years, does Nina Totenberg know who was telling the truth? Nope.

I've actively prevented myself from doing that. I'm a journalist. I'm a reporter. I cover the court. This was my story. I thought it was a credible story but you know, you saw what I saw and I don't think we actually have proof positive. Lots of people have their opinions, but I don't think it's in my interest to actually resolve this based on an opinion as opposed to fact.

Totenberg said the first round of Thomas confirmation hearings — and Supreme Court nominee hearings thereafter — were influenced by the Bork hearings, which took place four years prior. During his confirmation hearings, Judge Robert Bork spent significant time answering questions about his very conservative judicial philosophy, and because of how much he answered and how it was received, he was denied the confirmation. Totenberg said this was something that was unexpected when he was first nominated. Since then, Supreme Court nominees have changed their tune.

In reaction to that, the Thomas hearings were a very scripted, say-nothing hearings in which he had no opinions about anything and the emphasis was on his early years, his upbringing, his poor childhood in poverty, his struggle, his very admiral ability to rise above his beginnings and become a person of considerable stature...

And nominees haven't said much ever since.

Justice Clarence Thomas has been under the spotlight lately because of his wife Ginni Thomas' outspoken support of the Tea Party. Totenberg said the political activities of a justice's spouse have never lead to a recusal. And unless the spouse has a financial interest for his or her work, there wouldn't need to be one:

All of ethics professors and experts will say to you that the ethics rules are written to accommodate a spouse who does something and has views that are different are the same or whatever as the justice, justices are not required to recuse themselves simply because their spouses are politically active. If the spouse has a financial interest, then the justice is required to recuse him or herself.

As for checking out Supreme Court nominees, Totenberg said it's not just about finding the dirty stuff.

You go and you find out anything you can. You're not looking for dirt, you're looking for who they are and for the way they've behaved and what they think and how they've conducted themselves and what they're open to and what they're not open to, what kind of person they are. You're really looking for some idea of what kind of Justice this is going to be.