One of the most difficult confirmation hearings in US Supreme Court history has returned 19 years later in a story involving race, gender, and today’s highly contentious political scene.
To most people, Virginia Thomas is not a well-known figure. But as the wife of Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas she has the capacity to make news – whether she wants to or not. And she certainly is making news these days.
Ms. Thomas recently left a voice mail for Anita Hill asking Ms. Hill “to consider an apology … and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband.”
During Justice Thomas’s confirmation hearing in 1991, Hill accused him of sexual harassment when she worked for him at the US Department of Education and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Hill, now a professor at Brandeis University, at first thought the voice mail message was prank. She reported it to the university’s security office, which turned it over to the FBI. Ms. Thomas has acknowledged that the voice mail was from her.
The recent voice mail to Anita Hill is not the only reason for recent interest in “Ginni” Thomas, as she’s known.
Virginia Thomas, tea party activist
Ms. Thomas’s very overt advocacy on behalf of conservative and tea party organizations and causes – including harsh criticism of President Obama and Democratic lawmakers – has prompted questions about whether this is unseemly for the spouse of a US Supreme Court justice. For someone in her unique position, where is the line between free speech and association and the need to avoid the appearance of politics in the federal judiciary?
Many political spouses (and they are usually wives) have causes, and they do engage in overt politicking. This week, Michelle Obama, whose approval ratings are higher than her husband’s, is stumping for Democratic candidates facing rough midterm elections.
Some spouses, like Hillary Clinton, get right into the political machinery (as she did on health care during her husband's administration) even though they have no elected status whatsoever.
Ms. Thomas, on the other hand, has been the keynote speaker at large tea party events, most recently in Virginia. She’s the founder and head of “Liberty Central,” a nonprofit organization “designed to promote education, civil discourse, and activism focused on protecting core founding principles of the United States,” according to its mission statement.
A conflict of interest?
Questions about Ms. Thomas's political activity have to do with the appearance of conflict of interest close to the federal judiciary. (Although given his voting record, it's hard to see how Justice Thomas could be any more conservative.)
But Justice Thomas might have to recuse himself from decisions that appear to favor his wife’s organization – regarding fundraising, for example. This has happened with other federal judges whose spouses were key figures in political organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.
While Liberty Central is not required to report the identity of its donors, Sarah Field, the organization’s chief operating officer and general counsel, said in a written statement to the New York Times that the group has “internal reviews and protections to ensure that no donor causes a conflict of interest for either Ginni or her husband.”
In any case, political spouses – including those whose husbands or wives are judges elected or appointed as part of the political process – have the same rights as anyone else.
“I may not agree with Ginni Thomas on any policy issue, but what she’s doing seems – if I can’t say utterly commendable one could certainly say utterly proper in a democracy,” Cambridge University historian David Garrow told Newsweek.
The call: Why now?
But the call to Hill struck many observers as odd, and it’s hard to see any particular reason for it other than some deep, lingering, personal hurt and the felt need to cleanse this part of her husband's reputation.
Hill’s she-said-he-said accusations of sexual harassment against Justice Thomas were shocking at the time, and they aroused equally harsh accusations against Hill. There were sordid allegations involving mental state, sex, and race. (Both Justice Thomas and Hill are African-American.)
In the most infamous comment at the time, conservative writer David Brock suggested that Hill was "a bit nutty and a bit slutty."
Brock has since disavowed the charges he further wrote about in his 1993 book “The Real Anita Hill,” and he has apologized to Hill.
Following the 1991 confirmation hearings, Hill returned to academia, although she has not been able to exit the limelight entirely – as when Justice Thomas published his autobiography in 2007. Her own autobiography, published in 1998, is titled “Speaking Truth to Power.”
In response to Ms. Thomas’s voice mail, Hill said in a statement: "I have no intention of apologizing because I testified truthfully about my experience, and I stand by that testimony."