October 23 marked Clarence Thomas’ 25th year as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. The anniversary was followed by new allegations of sexual harassment—with the potential to reopen the Anita Hill controversy that tarnished Thomas’ ascendance to the Court decades ago.
A bombshell article by Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal details a 1999 encounter that Moira Smith, a lawyer and former Truman Scholar, had with Thomas at a dinner party held at the home of Louis Blair, who was the head of the Truman Foundation. Smith was 24 years old; Thomas had been on the bench for eight years. As Smith helped set the table, Coyle writes:
Alone with Thomas, “I was setting the place to his right when he reached out, sort of cupped his hand around my butt and pulled me pretty close to him,” Smith said in an interview. “He said, ‘Where are you sitting?’ and gave me a squeeze. I said, ‘I’m sitting down at the garden table.’ He said, ‘I think you should sit next to me,’ giving me squeezes. I said, ‘Well, Mr. Blair is pretty particular about his seating chart.’ I tried to use the seating chart as a pretext for refusing. He one more time squeezed my butt and he said, ‘Are you sure?’ I said yes, and that was the end of it.”
Smith said the other guests then assembled for the dinner and she went to the garden table to take her seat. [Fellow attendee] Buckley said she did not recall seeing anything unusual that evening. Smith recalled being “shell-shocked, but also I was there for work. I had a job to do, to be genial as sort of a stand-in hostess.”
Thomas denied the claim in a statement through a Supreme Court spokesperson. “This claim is preposterous and it never happened,” he said.
Smith first broke her silence on October 7, the day that the audio of Donald Trump bragging about apparent sexual assault rocked the nation. She posted a status on Facebook about her alleged encounter with Thomas:
At the age of 24, I found out I’d be attending a dinner party at my boss’s house with Justice Clarence Thomas. I was so incredibly excited to meet him, rough confirmation hearings notwithstanding. He was charming in many ways—giant, booming laugh, charismatic, approachable. But to my complete shock, he groped me while I was setting the table, suggesting I should sit “right next to him.” When I feebly explained that I’d been assigned to the other table, he groped again … “are you *sure*??” I said I was and proceeded to keep my distance.
This was three years after a date rape.
A few years later, I was accosted in a bar by an acquaintance.
I do not take the decision to share these incredibly personal and painful moments lightly. I also do not share this because of the election, or even really because of Donald Trump. I share this because if this can happen to me—a privileged white woman—three times in ten years, how bad must it be for those who are not as privileged?
Enough is enough.
The impetus for her disclosure may not have been Donald Trump, but it is certainly fortuitous that she has broken her silence at a time when the country is engaging in a conversation about sexual assault and harassment, rape culture, and holding accused sexual predators and harassers accountable for their behavior.
First Bill Cosby. Then Trump. And now Thomas … again.
The National Law Journal‘s Marcia Coyle did her due diligence in contacting myriad people who claimed knowledge of the incident Smith described at the time that it occurred and who corroborated Smith’s claims.
Coyle interviewed two women—Laura Fink and Carrie Farmer—with whom Smith lived in 1999. Both women recalled Smith talking to them about the alleged incident. “We were all shocked. We didn’t have any resources or know what to do. We felt bad for Moira and disappointed that someone in a powerful position would do that,” Farmer told the National Law Journal in an interview.
A third former roommate who declined to be identified by name confirmed Smith’s side of the story, telling the National Law Journal that at the time Smith “described a situation ‘where there was inappropriate behavior, some interaction with Clarence Thomas.’”
The anonymous roommate seemed less surprised by the encounter. “This kind of thing happens, and it was not unusual to share these encounters, especially young women in D.C.,” she said.
Another person who served as a Truman Scholar at the time Smith did, Paul Bodnar, also backed up Smith’s allegations. “I do remember [Smith telling me],” he said in an interview with the National Law Journal.
“When I saw that [Facebook] post, I definitely remembered it right away,” he continued.
“She and I had dinner once at Blair’s home. We were both Truman Scholars. To me, her story connects with the memory of that dinner because she told me then that [Thomas] had touched her inappropriately. Obviously it was disturbing to her.”
These new allegations have the potential to reopen the Anita Hill controversy. Democrats and Republicans would likely rather not revisit the incident, since the failure of Thomas’ confirmation hearing, during which her accusations of sexual harassment featured prominently, can be laid at the feet of both parties.
Articles like this by Steve Kornacki, which details the evidence against Thomas, make it all the more obvious that the Senate Judiciary Committee, with then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) at the helm, horribly botched the confirmation hearing by precluding corroborating witnesses and other women who had lodged similar complaints about Thomas from testifying.
For example, Judiciary Committee investigators tracked down and interviewed one woman who had never met or worked with Anita Hill, Angela Wright. Wright alleged a pattern of harassment at the hands of Clarence Thomas. Apparently convinced that her testimony would be important to the proceedings, the committee subpoenaed Wright to appear before the hearing. Wright flew to Washington, D.C., prepared to testify about Thomas’s harassing behavior, which included, in one instance, a question about Wright’s bra size. As Kornacki points out in Salon, this would have strengthened Hill’s case considerably: “A second female Thomas underling, one who had never met or worked with Hill, accusing him of the same conduct.”
But the committee never called Wright to testify. Instead, the committee entered the transcript of her phone interview with investigators into the record on the eve of the final vote on Thomas’ confirmation, and the content of her interview got lost in media reports.
And that was the end of that.
Anita Hill was subject to public humiliation. For three days, she was harangued by a panel of all-white men who questioned the veracity of her claims and assassinated her character, but through it all she remained resolved. Still, despite her courage and efforts, the man she alleged sexually harassed her was elevated to the highest court in the land and has stayed there for 25 years.
Thomas, of course, vigorously denied Hill’s allegations. In a phrase seemingly calculated to play on the guilt of the all-white judiciary panel, he declared at the hearing: “This is a circus. It’s a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a Black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.”
(That Anita Hill is also Black didn’t seem to register with Thomas.)
The allegations of Moira Smith, who is white, and the allegations of any women who may be emboldened to step forward with their own allegations about Thomas’ behavior—because, as they say, where there’s smoke there’s fire—could be the impetus needed to provide the justice that Anita Hill sought in 1991. Because if there’s one thing this country rarely abides, it’s Black men sexually harassing white women. This is a sad commentary on the state of racial and gender relations in this country, albeit a true one.
Still, justice for survivors of sexual harassment and assault—even white ones—is elusive, and any pipe dreams about Thomas being forced off the Court should be tempered with a large dose of reality.
In the Court’s history, only one justice—Samuel Chase—has been impeached, for convoluted reasons involving supposedly partisan conduct. He was impeached in 1804, acquitted of all charges in 1805, and remained on the bench until he died in 1811. Another justice, Abe Fortas, resigned under threat of impeachment for taking inappropriate gifts from wealthy benefactors in 1969.
That’s two justices in the Court’s 227-year history.
Certainly if the scandal resulting from Smith’s accusations is big enough, it could be an embarrassment to the Court, prompting Thomas to step down or Chief Justice Roberts to ask him to do so.
And, if media interest prompts a reexamination of Hill’s case, there may be cause to review Thomas’s confirmation hearing testimony to determine if he perjured himself by denying any of the allegations made by Hill that turn out to be true. Certainly, a sitting Supreme Court justice allegedly sexually harassing women should be cause for some sort of action on the part of the Court.
But imagine the uproar that would result if a Black Supreme Court justice were to be forced off the Court during a potential Hillary Clinton administration, thus leaving Samuel Alito as the sole conservative justice on the court. Conservatives would have a meltdown.
None of this is very likely, but it sure is fun to think about.