A Perversion of Justice

IN the end it was not a triumph for truth, but a victory for bad taste and the politics of sleaze.The country will survive the grotesque Senate confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas, but Americans deserve better than the perversion of justice that has just taken place before their embarrassed gaze. In sessions stripped of the respect and dignity that should surround the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, political Washington has just staged a spectacle that ranged in character from the infamous excesses of Britain's 17th century Star Chamber to a seamy peep-show. Public disapproval of the Senate's handling of the Thomas hearings surged in the polls to 60 percent, which tells us what we already knew: that the public often has better judgment than the politicians. Coming on top of revelations about unmonitored bank overdrafts for some congressmen, fixed parking tickets, and questionable perks, dare we hope that the debacle of the Thomas hearings will engender enough shame on Capitol Hill to spark some kind of reform movement and a return to principle and decency? As one attempts to draw up a balance sheet of pluses and minuses on the hearings, that would be one of the few developments to include in a slender list of positives. Another plus may be heightened awareness of the problem of sexual harassment, although, in an unfairly ironic twist, even this may be offset in practice by a new male wariness; some male employers, for fear of incurring harassment suits, may find it safer to hire men than women. The negatives from the Thomas hearings are many. The aides of Democratic senators opposed to Judge Thomas perverted a legitimate investigative process by deliberately looking for scandal that would upset his candidacy for the Supreme Court. This was not an open-minded inquiry, but a partisan vendetta. They convinced Anita Hill, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma and a former colleague of Judge Thomas, that she could make her 10-year-old accusations, perhaps causing the Thomas nomination to fail, without disclosing to the public the identity of the accuser. Professor Hill was tragically misled. When it received Hill's confidential testimony, the Senate Judiciary Committee clearly erred by not prosecuting vigorously enough in private her allegations. Instead, determined to pursue the campaign against Judge Thomas, some member or staffer on the Judiciary Committee opposed to him leaked to a National Public Radio reporter the confidential reports of Professor Hill's charges. That was blatantly partisan, certainly unethical, and probably a crime. With the sexual harassment charges exploded across the nation's newspaper front pages and television screens, a Judiciary Committee jolted by criticism primarily from women elected to investigate the allegations not in executive session - not even in a courtroom-like setting with cameras barred - but in the glare of floodlights under the relentless lenses of a battalion of network cameras. Under those floodlights, the interrogation of witnesses took on a blatantly partisan tone. Some of the Judiciary Committee's senators pursuing the investigation themselves had personal problems of an embarrassing nature. Some, like Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, seemed to have learned nothing from the tastelessness of the proceedings. On Sunday night, Senator Metzenbaum tried to smear with sexual innuendoes a black attorney appearing as a witness for Judge Thomas. The senator was ruled out of order, his charges inadmissible on grounds they were uncorroborated and not recorded under oath, but not before he had been able to parade them on national television. Then there was the repetitive litany of the detailed sexual obscenities Judge Thomas was alleged to have committed - obscenities repeated at all times of day, including the Saturday morning viewing period which usually captures a children's audience. If there is little positive that can presently be said about this tawdry event and the human suffering it has caused, there is one hope for the future. It is that honorable men and women will demand a fairer and more civilized way of testing and confirming America's appointees for high office.

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