Charges Against Thomas Cast Doubt on Senate
Some see real issue as sexual harassment, some as hardball political gamesmanship
THE sudden jeopardy of Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court this week raised many doubts and misgivings about the Senate itself, and not just Judge Thomas.Early in the week, doubts about how the Senate had treated sexual harassment allegations against Judge Thomas multiplied through the Senate chamber. The doubts concerned how seriously the nearly all-male Senate took sexual harassment, and it concerned the hardball political gamesmanship of the confirmation process. In a way, the burden of proof is now on the Senate to show that they understand sexual harassment, said Rep. Pat Shroeder (D) of Colorado, at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday. With the decision late Tuesday to delay the confirmation vote on Mr. Thomas for a full week, with public hearings on the accusations against him, the Senate is attempting to resolve the charges. But it is also an effort to patch up its own credibility. On the left, many saw the Senate and its Judiciary Committee giving short shrift to the very concept of sexual harassment by failing to fully and publicly investigate the charges. "Frankly, I don't think 98 percent of us here know very much about [sexual harassment]," said Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts. Many conservatives saw a last-ditch attempt by Thomas opponents to derail his confirmation through character assassination. The leak of the allegations by former Thomas aide Anita Hill, apparently by a senator or staff member, was timed perfectly to derail the confirmation vote, notes Alan Slobodin, president of the legal studies division of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation. "It's a political campaign, and she's a 30-second attack ad," he says. Thomas's supporters fought off the delay of the vote for much of Tuesday. "We all know that this is a game," said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) with some bitterness. "We all know that if this is delayed, every left-wing group in the country is going to try to do to Judge Thomas what they did to Judge Bork." Eventually, however, even Thomas was seeking hearings as a forum for clearing his name. The credibility of Thomas and his accuser had a kind of balance. People who had never liked what Thomas represented saw the charges as fitting a pattern of insensitivity to gender bias. They believed Anita Hill. His supporters saw a different pattern of desperate and unsubstantiated attack. They believed Thomas. Many in the middle found it very difficult to doubt the word of either the earnest Supreme Court nominee or the woman, now a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, after watching her in a press conference Monday. She says Thomas asked her out to dinner when she worked for him at the Education Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the early 1980s. After she refused, she says, he repeatedly described scenes from pornographic movies to her. He denied her whole story Tuesday in a sworn affidavit. The kind of sexual harassment Professor Hill describes is against the law when it turns the workplace into a "hostile environment" for the person subjected to it. Her own claim is that Thomas violated the law, one of the very antidiscrimination laws he was in charge of enforcing at the EEOC. But even if the law was not violated, the accusations raise questions about the character of a man close to a lifetime appointment on the nation's ultimate court. "These charges come on top of concerns in the minority community and elsewhere that he is insensitive to women," says William Eskridge, a law professor at Georgetown University. Thomas supporters find the accusations at odds with what they see of Thomas's history. "It's totally inconsistent with what's on the record and what people know about Judge Thomas," says Mr. Slobodin. Ms. Hill never exactly came forward with her charges. Senate staff members heard about her alleged experience and contacted her. She told them her story, but asked that her name be withheld from the press and from Thomas. Only after the hearings were over in late September did she give committee chairman Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware permission to authorize an FBI investigation that would alert Thomas to the charges. Before the committee voted on Thomas, Senator Biden shared the FBI report with its members. The vote on recommending Thomas for confirmation was split 7 to 7. That the charges did not receive a more thorough airing has raised questions about the senators' grasp of women's concerns. "I think it does suggest that some of the senators may not have taken this seriously, or seriously enough," says Michael Gerhardt, a former Washington lawyer who now teaches at William and Mary law school and is an expert in the confirmation process. Biden argues that his committee was bound by a pledge of confidentiality to Anita Hill. The witness, in effect, was not willing to testify. Nevertheless, after the news leak this weekend, it took considerable clamor over the seriousness of sexual harassment charges before the Senate moved to delay the vote until full public hearings can be held. The legal attack on sexual harassment as a form of discrimination has only solidified in the past decade, and confirmed by a Supreme Court decision in 1986. But the public takes it fairly seriously. According to a 1986 Time magazine survey, 84 percent of the public believes that pressuring an employee for a date constitutes sexual harassment.