Here’s what happened the last time a Supreme Court nominee was accused of sexual misconduct, and how it compares to now

Anita Hill accused then Supreme Court-nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

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Anita Hill accused then Supreme Court-nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
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Rick Wilking/Reuters

  • Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of sexual misconduct, and it’s not the first time in American history this has happened.
  • There are parallels between Christine Blasey Ford‘s allegations against Kavanaugh, and lawyer Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against then-nominee Clarence Thomas.
  • Here’s what happened in both cases, what Hill says the Senate can do better this time around, and how the allegations against Kavanaugh could impact American politics for years to come.

When President Donald Trump nominated Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in July, his confirmation seemed all but certain.

A graduate of Yale College and Yale Law School, he boasted experience in the Justice Department and the White House in addition to 12 years on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals.

Other than a squabble over the release of some documents from his time in the Bush administration, and multiple interruptions from protesters, Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings went off without a hitch.

That is, until two bombshell sexual assault allegations from the early 1980s surfaced against him, bringing the confirmation proceedings to a screeching halt.

While such an event may seem unprecedented, a strikingly similar scenario unfolded 27 years ago during the confirmation process of Justice Clarence Thomas. Law professor Anita Hill was called into testify publicly in 1991 about allegations of sexual harassment she lodged against Thomas in a private FBI sit-down.

An all-male panel of senators grilling Anita Hill over her allegations and attacking her credibility was largely perceived as sexist, and brought the issue of sexual harassment into the national consciousness, as well as inspired a generation of women to run for office.

Now, a parallel process will play out Thursday as both Judge Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accuses him of sexually assaulting her, testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Here’s what happened last time, and how the lasting effects of Hill’s case could color Kavanaugh’s chances of getting confirmed to the Supreme Court.

A tale of 2 Judges – and 2 professors

senate judiciary committee members clarence thomas brett kavanaugh

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Shayanne Gal/Business Insider

The details of both situations have some similarities: both accusers are university professors who initially made their accusations of misconduct confidentially or anonymously, but were driven by a sense of civic duty to risk everything to come forward against powerful men.

Christine Blasey-Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and Stanford, accused a drunken 17-year old Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her when she was 15 at a 1982 house party in suburban Maryland in a letter to her congresswoman Anna Eshoo. Eshoo then passed it along to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, in July.

After two months, Feinstein referred the letter to the FBI, the content of which was then reported on by The Intercept. Investigative journalists Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer (who, coincidentally, co-wrote a book in the 1990s about the Anita Hill hearings), tracked down and wrote a story on Ford for the New Yorker while keeping her identity anonymous.

Ford went public in an interview with the Washington Post’s Emma Brown, putting a face and name to the allegations, and offering more details to back up her story.

Kavanaugh vehemently denies having assaulted Ford or “anyone else,” and said he is prepared to testify under oath to that effect.

Hill’s allegations against Thomas in 1991 were somewhat different in that they concerned a pattern of harassment and inappropriate behavior as opposed to one isolated alleged assault.

During a private interview with the FBI, Hill accused Thomas of sexually harassing her and creating a hostile work environment over a number of years while she worked for him in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division and at the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in the early 1980s.

After the interview’s contents were leaked to the press, Sen. Joe Biden, then the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, re-opened Thomas’ confirmation hearings – and called for Hill to publicly testify, which she did in October 1991.

“The most moving aspect of Hill’s testimony was the vivid portrait she painted of the vulnerability, humiliation and frustration she experienced while working under such conditions,” TIME Magazine writer Jill Smolowe wrote of Hill’s nearly 8 hours of testimony before the committee.

“She spoke of her fear of being squeezed out of good assignments, losing her job, maybe even not being able to find any job at all within the Reagan Administration if she continued to resist Thomas’ alleged overtures.”

After Ford came forward with her allegations, another woman, Debbie Ramirez, accused Kavanaugh of exposing himself to her during a party in their freshmen year at Yale in an interview with the New Yorker.

Casting doubt on the women

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley was also a member on the committee that questioned Anita Hill.

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Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley was also a member on the committee that questioned Anita Hill.
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Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Even after the #MeToo movement has brought down dozens of high-profile men and sparked a national reckoning over sexual misconduct, there are striking similarities between how Ford is treated now and how Hill was treated 27 years ago.

When Ford testifies, both women will have questioned by an all-male panel of GOP Senators. While there are now four women on the Judiciary Committee, they are all Democrats. In Ford’s case, the Judiciary Committee has hired an outside counsel, sex crimes prosecutor Rachel Mitchell, to cross-examine Ford.

In 1991, Republicans on the Committee pressed Hill on the most sexually explicit details of the alleged harassment, and sought to undermine her credibility at every turn.

Why, they wondered, did she not report the alleged harassment at the time? Why did she take another job under Thomas at the EOEC after being harassed at the Justice Department? They pointed to Hill once giving Thomas a ride to the airport as evidence that she was lying about being harassed.

Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, who is still on the Judiciary Committee, even accused Hill of fabricating her testimony and adapting it from the book “The Exorcist.”

It wasn’t only the Republicans who were criticized for how they handled the hearing. Biden came under fire for not calling multiple witnesses who had volunteered to testify in support of Hill’s version of events as part of a deal with Republican leadership.

“I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill,” Biden told Teen Vogue in 2017. “I owe her an apology.”

Ford provided the Post with notes from a 2012 therapy session in which she discussed the alleged attack, and the results of a polygraph indicating she told the truth, (even though polygraph exams are not usually considered admissible evidence in a court of law), but that hasn’t shielded her from numerous attacks on her credibility.

Some Republican senators and commentators have zeroed in on Ford’s lack of recollection of some of the key details on the alleged incident, like whose house the assault occurred at, doubting the year it happened, and her not speaking publicly about the incident for 35 years, to accuse her of lying about the entire incident.

“Most women remember virtually everything about the circumstances of a sexual assault no matter how long ago,” Dennis Prager claimed in the National Review, an argument thoroughly debunked by substantive research that trauma psychologists and other scientists have conducted on repressed memories and post-traumatic stress.

Similarly to how Hatch and Thomas accused Hill’s testimony of being “contrived … by special interest groups,” and “slick lawyers,” conservative Erick Erickson claimed Ford was somehow put up to falsely accuse Kavanaugh of assault by abortion rights groups concerned about his stance on the issue – a claim Thomas also lodged against Hill in his 2007 memoir.

Both women have also been accused of suffering from mental illness or delusions. Some Thomas supporters accused Hill of suffering from “erotomania,” a condition that causes people to have wild romantic or sexual delusions.

Ed Whelan, Kavanaugh’s former coworker at the Department of Justice, wondered on Twitter if Ford’s “long course of psychotherapy included recovered-memory therapy, dubious method known to create false memories.” (He has since deleted the tweet.) Another conservative commentator called her a “loon.”

When asked by reporters to comment on Ford’s allegations against Kavanaugh on Monday, Hatch said, “the woman is probably mixed up.”

Trump himself similarly pointed to Ramirez’s admitted intoxication at the time as the alleged incident to discredit her, calling her “a mess” at the United Nations General Assembly.

What Anita Hill thinks the Senate should do this time around

kavanaugh ford hearing seating chart

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Samantha Lee/Business Insider

The Senate Judiciary Committee now has a second chance to evaluate allegations of sexual misconduct against a Supreme Court nominee, and Hill laid out a number of suggestions for them in a Tuesday New York Times op-ed.

“That the Senate Judiciary Committee still lacks a protocol for vetting sexual harassment and assault claims that surface during a confirmation hearing suggests that the committee has learned little from the Thomas hearing, much less the more recent #MeToo movement,” she wrote.

Hill argued the committee should designate “a neutral investigative body with experience in sexual misconduct cases” to do an independent probe of the alleged incident to produce the more reliable results and avoid any semblance of partisanship.

She also advised the committee not to rush the hearings on the matter, arguing their scheduled date of hearing testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford on Monday is far too soon to adequately prepare for a hearing on such a serious matter.

Hill said on “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that the committee should “push the pause button” on the hearings until the FBI investigates.

In a Wednesday speech at the University of Utah, Hill criticized the Judiciary Committee for proceeding with testimony from Kavanaugh and Ford without first carrying out a thorough, neutral investigation and only allowing two witnesses, the alleged victim and perpetrator, to testify.

“Setting them up this way does a disservice not only to the primary witness, but it does a disservice to the courts, and it does a disservice to the American people who want to know how to respond to these situations and they want representation that helps them understand,” she said.

A 2nd ‘year of the woman’?

Senator Barbara Mikulski stands with women senatorial candidates Carol Moseley-Braun, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, and others at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City.

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Senator Barbara Mikulski stands with women senatorial candidates Carol Moseley-Braun, Barbara Boxer, Patty Murray, and others at the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York City.
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Laura Patterson/Library of Congress

Thomas was eventually confirmed to the Supreme Court by a narrow 52-48 vote.

But the effects of Hill’s testimony not only brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment into the mainstream, it also had a lasting impact on the make-up of Congress.

The image of an all-male, all-white panel questioning Hill about the legitimacy of her experiences with harassment highlighted the lack of female representation in Congress, inspiring a new generation of women to take on the male-dominated institution.

The year 1992 was termed the “Year of The Woman” due to the record-shattering number of women who ran for and won seats in Congress. Twenty-four women were elected to the House of Representatives for the first time, and the number of female US Senators tripled from two to six.

This year, another record of 256 women have won primaries to advance to the congressional general elections in November. The sheer number of women running with the backdrop of the #MeToo movement could drive women – particularly college-educated suburban women who might not usually vote in midterm election – to the polls.

“This year certainly has the potential to be another year of the woman,” Laurel Harbridge-Yong, a political scientist at Northwestern University, told Business Insider.

“To the extent the concerns around Kavanaugh are adequately handled or not, this could mobilize white suburban women, a really key segment of the electorate, to vote for Democratic congressional candidates.”