• Supreme Court

Insane Facts About the Clarence Thomas Scandal

The Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings - held in 1991 - were some of the most contentious and scandalous in the history of the US Supreme Court. But while the testimony of Anita Hill is what most people remember about them, the hearings were even stranger than that - and continue to be debated and discussed to this day.

But first things first: who is Clarence Thomas? Did you know that Thomas was extremely inexperienced, with less than two years as a judge before he was nominated to the Supreme Court? Or that a future vice president played a key role in the controversy surrounding the nomination? Or that his confirmation went forward by a margin slimmer than any since the 1800s?

Here are some truly crazy Clarence Thomas scandal facts from his Supreme Court nomination hearings.
  • Sexual Harassment Was Only Declared Illegal by SCOTUS in 1986

    Photo: Duncan Lock / Wikimedia Commons
    While the phrase "sexual harassment" entered the popular lexicon thanks to the Clarence Thomas hearings, it was only in 1986 that the Supreme Court ruled it to be illegal. In the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson, the Court unanimously decided that unwanted sexual advances and touching are a form of discrimination, in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • No One Really Wanted Clarence Thomas to Be Nominated

    Photo: Tony Webster / Wikimedia Commons

    Thomas's name was first put forward for SCOTUS in 1990 when William Brennan retired. But while President Bush wanted to nominate him, his staff talked him out of it due to Thomas being fairly inexperienced as a judge.

    It wasn't until Thurgood Marshall stepped down a year later that Thomas was nominated - and was the only name Bush put forward. He was rated extremely low by the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, and both women's rights groups and the NAACP opposed him. Even the Senate Judiciary Committee was lukewarm on Thomas, splitting their vote 7-7 when they approved the nomination.
  • The Hearings Were Almost Over When Anita Hill's Name Surfaced

    Photo: © Wally McNamee/CORBIS

    The Senate confirmation hearings for Thomas began on September 10, 1991. The hearings went fairly smoothly, other than an odd argument with Joe Biden over property rights. But just a few days before the Senate's vote, on October 11, Anita Hill was called to testified as to Thomas's conduct toward her.

    The hearings were extended just a few days, before the Senate voted on October 15.

  • We Have NPR to Thank for Anita Hill's Testimony

    Photo: Steve Barrett / National Public Radio

    A few days before the Senate vote on Thomas was scheduled to take place, NPR legal reporter Nina Totenberg acquired sealed testimony from the Senate Judiciary Committee. It contained explosive information claiming Anita Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her when she worked under him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

    Totenberg spoke to Hill and confirmed the testimony, then approached Joe Biden for comment. When he was silent for two days, Totenberg went public. The hearings were swiftly re-opened.