One of the most bizarre episodes in American jurisprudence occurred in 1991 when then-nominee to the Supreme Court Clarence Thomas appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee. His former staff subordinate, a young lawyer named Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment. The hearings on his nomination became a drama with a volatile mix of race, gender and conservative-liberal ideologies. Clarence Thomas wound up confirmed for a seat on the Supreme Court, and Anita Hill went on to a career in teaching.
In the last week, the bitter memories and still-raw scars from that episode emerged anew with the unprecedented release of a memoir by Justice Thomas. Rarely, if ever, has a sitting Supreme Court Justice revealed so much about himself, his attitudes, opinions and still-raw emotions. Justice Thomas also gave a lengthy interview to the CBS Newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” In the book and interview, his comments about Professor Hill are particularly pointed.
Anita Hill responded today in an oped column in the New York Times.
Only two people really know what really occurred so long ago between them. But in the contemporary environment for American political life, for race relations and gender politics, the resurgence of the Thomas-Hill drama seems unconstructive at best. But the Thomas memoir is now a matter of the public record, as is the Hill response, and both provide compelling reading and analysis.
Have we learned anything new in the 16 years since the hearings? Does this new retrospective on the Thomas-Hill debate provide any new illumination on issues of race and gender discrimination in this nation? Or is this just one more unresolved American tragedy?
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