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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

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.



Nina Totenberg


More in:

Comments [10]

David Howard from Joplin, Missouri

Google "Quadri-Track ZCT"

Nov. 30 2011 11:26 PM
Barrie from nyc

I was dismayed to hear your segment in which your reporter guest said she does not know if she believes Anita Hill. I think your coverage is really deeply harmful if not viewed and heard in the context of the conference held this past weekend titled: "Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later" held in NYC at Hunter College (a similar conference was held at HC 20 years ago), to balance the lame & shallow words from your reporter interviewee. All of it can be viewed and heard at CSPAN, and a lot of complementary info is available at the site of the conference, and the evening peformance is going to be posted there also in the near future (as I was advised today by the media department of the conference). The speakers and panelists and performers at the conference had far more scholarly knowledge and insight, hindsight, foresight, scholarly and grassroots, intersectionally, and cross-generationally, than the segment you did on your show yesterday -- the segment you did is an embarrassment and very dangerous in the misconceptions it furthers, even though it may have some minimal value in getting people to think about what a reporter's job is. I hope anyone who heard your segment will watch and listen to the entire conference (which you didn't even mention!) at the sites I mentioned above and following -- and that all will know that the speakers and panelists and participants at this conference are among the people who have studied the Anita Hill/Thomas hearings the most and among the most expert on the topic--it was a thrilling conference and the level of discourse was notably highly-informed and deeply wise, in contrast to your segment yesterday:

It appears that all of the conference is now accessible again on CSPAN (there are different links to click on for each segment -- and they have links to show some footage from the hearings 20 years ago), and the site for the conference itself claims to have all the info from the conference:

Sex, Power and Speaking Truth: Anita Hill 20 Years Later

Everything you need on the conference this past weekend is on our website - preliminary photos, a toolkit on sexual harassment, links to event coverage, and more!
From CSPAN site:

CSPAN lets you click on each of the following at the link above to see each segment:
Video Playlist

Panel - Witnesses: What Happened?
Panel - Responders: What Does Anita Hill Mean to You?
Keynote Address: A Conversation with Anita Hill
Panel: What Have We Learned in 20 Years and What Comes Next?
Anita Hill testimony: from 1991
Anita Hill testimony part 2: from 1991

Related Resources

Conference website

Surviving Clarence

Daily Beast

Oct. 20 2011 05:23 PM

I believe Anita and think it's a complete cop-out that Totenberg claims she has no opinion. Anita Hill took a lie detector test and passed.Thomas refused. Anyone remember John Doggett who testified that Anita Hill was mentally unstable because she couldn't seem to accept the fact that he didn't return her romantic interest - a romantic interest she did not have (Anita is gay)?

BTW, I've seen Anita Hill in person and, while you might not know it from her photos, she is incredibly beautiful.

Oct. 19 2011 11:51 AM
Phyllis McKee from Florida

I'm very dissapointed in Nina Totenberg saying that she deliberately didn't pursue whether what Thomas did was true or not these many years later. How can she call herself an Investigative Reporter? Thomas will be on the court for life making decisions that will impact us all. From what I have seen it seems that the impact is very negative. If Woodward and Bernstein had done what she claims she decided "not to do", We would be rewriting history.

Oct. 19 2011 11:31 AM

This interview is a clear example why American News media is utterly worthless. Nina Totenberg can not state an opinion weather Anita Hill was credible or not. Since that would affect Miz.Totenberg job.
The conversation like all conversations in America media is completely useless. Why go over it when you can’t say a thing. Report what’s safe and keep your job in a crumbling corporate state.

Oct. 19 2011 11:26 AM
john from office

Soooo, if I want to kill a nomination I hand it to Nina, she will run with it!.

Oct. 19 2011 11:21 AM
Steven Benjamin from Brooklyn, NY

I would like to Ms. Totenberg to comment on the reports that were circulating at the time that the Judiciary Committee had additional witnesses with experiences with Thomas similar to Anita Hills that they chose not to interview publicly.

Oct. 19 2011 11:17 AM
Steve Benjamin from Brooklyn, NY

I would like to hear a comment on the allegations that were floating around that there were additional witnesses with experiences with Thomas similar to Anita Hill's that were swept under the rug by the Judiciary Committee.

Oct. 19 2011 11:15 AM
Nick from Lost in NJ

The 20 year old question is: Is Ms. Hill a psychotic liar or is Justice Thomas a lying, sexually abusing creep with a life-long judicial appointment?

We may never know who was telling the truth but my money is on Ms. Hill.

Oct. 19 2011 11:08 AM
Martin Chuzzlewit from Manhattan

Whatever your prejudices against Justice Thomas and his decisions, he has proven himself a dignified, open-minded and deliberative jurist……the attempted lynching by white liberals and the left wing media notwithstanding. (Get ready for it Herman Cain.)
After all……it’s not as if Justice Thomas had sat in the church of a ranting, racist, America-hating and virulently anti-Semitic reverend for twenty years and then called this charlatan his “mentor”.
Yes, now THAT would have disqualified him from high public office

Oct. 19 2011 10:21 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


About It's A Free Country ®

Archive of It's A Free Country articles and posts. Visit the It's A Free Country Home Page for lots more.

Supported by

WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public.  Learn more at


Supported by