OPED: Lessons from Anita Hill treatment
When I first called Anita Hill in 1991 to ask her, out of the blue, if she had been sexually harassed by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, she was very reluctant to give me any details.
I had learned that for weeks Hill had been talking to Senate Judiciary Committee staffers, after they received a tip from a former classmate of hers, but that she was unwilling to let the committee identify her by name.
Hill asked me whether I thought it would make a difference if she came forward and, indirectly, what the repercussions might be for her. I told her what she already knew: She would become the center of a firestorm and the focus of partisan attacks on her character.
It was not until my story detailing her allegations of harassment appeared in Newsday that Anita Hill became a household name.
Twenty-seven years later, Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh are unfolding in an uncannily similar fashion.
Like Hill, Ford was willing to talk to senators, but not to have her name revealed. In both cases, this reluctance led to delays, and ultimately to last-minute revelations after confirmation hearings were closed. As with Hill, Ford’s timing has exposed Democrats to charges that the accusations represent a desperate partisan attempt to derail the confirmation.
If Hill’s story had been handled properly earlier in the process, and she had been given time to prepare to testify, Thomas would not today be the senior associate justice on the Supreme Court.
But who can blame Ford for not wanting to go public after what happened to Hill?
Hill was accused by Republican senators of “erotomania,” was called “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty” by the journalist David Brock, and weathered ridiculous allegations that she had enclosed pubic hairs when returning papers to her law students at the University of Oklahoma. All just to see Thomas confirmed anyway.
“Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” Ford told the Washington Post.
There are other similarities. Both women are professors, people of standing. Both passed lie detector tests. But there are also major differences between Ford’s situation and Hill’s.
Hill had several witnesses who testified that she had told them about harassment by Thomas around the time it occurred. Ford, a teenager at the time she says the incident took place, says she was too afraid of getting in trouble to tell anyone, and kept it a secret until she was in therapy six years ago.
Hill was essentially accusing Thomas of violating civil laws against sexual harassment, at a time when Thomas was responsible for enforcing those laws. Ford has accused a 17-year-old Kavanaugh of attempted rape.
What lessons are there to draw from the anguish that Hill, Thomas, the Senate and the country went through in 1991?
The most important one is that the accuser must be taken seriously, treated with respect and, crucially, given time to prepare and obtain competent advice.
Hill was cross-examined in prosecutorial fashion. She was given just two days to prepare. Her legal team was thrown together and not experienced in Senate procedure.
Both Ford and Kavanaugh are now scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. That should give Ford enough time to prepare, especially since she had already retained a top Washington lawyer, Debra Katz.
But there were other people at the party. Will they be called to testify? And what if other women come forward who claim similar experiences with Kavanaugh?
Kavanaugh’s age at the time of the alleged incident could end up being seen as a mitigating factor. At the same time, had he faced these allegations earlier, he likely would not be sitting on the D.C. Circuit Court today, much less nominated to the highest court in the land.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, the Democrat from West Virginia who had initially intended to vote to confirm Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court justice, put it best during that confirmation process. Byrd pointed out that confirmation is not a right protected by the rules of criminal law, including the requirement for two or more witnesses. Instead, Byrd said, confirmation is a political process where the interests of the country are more important than the rights of any individual.
“If there is a doubt,” Byrd said, “I say resolve it in the interests of our country, its future. Let’s not have a cloud of doubt for someone who will be on the court for many years.”
— Timothy M. Phelps is a former Washington legal reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times and co-author of “Capitol Games: The Inside Story of Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, and a Supreme Court nomination.”