Why is Clarence Thomas still on the Supreme Court?
TWENTY-SEVEN YEARS AGO, when Anita Hill stunned America with stories of Clarence Thomas’s fascination with Long Dong Silver, I was a reporter squeezed in among other reporters on the floor of the packed and sweaty Senate hearing room. I remember feeling disappointed, but not surprised, when those senators — all white men — confirmed Thomas to the US Supreme Court. A lifetime appointment.
Pathetic as it seems now, I was just grateful that Hill had brought sexual harassment out of the closet. Bosses started worrying. Instructions popped up, taped to the women’s bathroom door, on what to do about creepy colleagues. There was a chance that turning in a creepy colleague would make harassment stop. That didn’t happen. Still, it was a start.
Here’s what’s pathetic today. Thomas remains on the court, unchallenged, unprotested, with all we know now about sexual harassment and other accusations against him. He wields enormous power over every woman in America. Why are so few of us worked up?
Sunday night, the Associates of the Boston Public Library honored New Yorker journalist Jane Mayer. In 1994 she coauthored, “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” with her then-Wall Street Journal colleague Jill Abramson. Abramson later became the first woman executive editor of The New York Times.
Mayer and Abramson’s reporting detailed stories of three other women who said they too endured harassment by Thomas. Four women had been willing to testify to the committee, but the committee never asked. “Strange Justice” also reported on four others who said they knew of Thomas’s penchant for bizarre sexual talk. These revelations caused a stir, but Thomas, and the rest of us, soon moved on.
Then in February, in New York magazine, Abramson detailed three more women’s allegations against Thomas.
“On the same fall night in 2016 that the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape featuring Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault was made public,” wrote Abramson, Alaska attorney Moira Smith wrote on Facebook about her own experience in 1999, when she was 24.
“I found out I’d be attending a dinner at my boss’s house with Justice Clarence Thomas. . . . I was so incredibly excited to meet him,” Smith posted, describing Thomas as charming and charismatic. “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 I’d been assigned to the other table, he groped again.”
Abramson also wrote about lawyer Lillian McEwan’s claims and a third woman’s, whose story is murkier. Still, that brings to at least 10 those whose Thomas tales echo Hill’s.
Thomas, through spokespeople, has denied all this.
But it is his Senate denials, under oath, that form Abramson’s “Case for Impeaching Clarence Thomas.” She says he lied, repeatedly.
“President Trump has made lying much more acceptable today,” Abramson said in an interview last week. But federal judges have been impeached before. Perhaps a different Congress “would be interested in revisiting the fact that someone who perjured themselves at a Senate hearing should not be on the Supreme Court.”
Thomas is 69. He could serve into his 80s. And he could soon be joined by a second jurist nominated by Trump, who has multiple women problems of his own.
Here’s a sampling of Thomas’s votes impacting women. He voted to weaken women’s pay protections and to uphold a ban on so-called partial birth abortions. He voted to make it harder for a dining service worker — a woman and the department’s only African-American — to sue a supervisor for racial and physical harassment. He voted to uphold a for-profit company’s religious freedoms over women’s access to contraceptive coverage.
In all those cases, the women on the court — first Ruth Bader Ginsburg, later Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — voted on the opposite side of Thomas. But it’s not enough. Twenty-seven years ago Anita Hill said Clarence Thomas spoke to her repeatedly about big breasts, kinky sex, his own prowess, and more. Now we know: Others knew this. Some even endured it. Yet Thomas remains empowered to rule on the most intimate parts of your life, your sister’s, daughter’s, even granddaughter’s. How can this possibly stand?
Margery Eagan is cohost of WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio.”