Hot on the heels of FX's hugely successful The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, television audiences will be greeted with an adaptation of a real-life trial of very different kind. The Supreme Court confirmation hearing at the center of HBO's TV movie Confirmation may seem dry in comparison to the infamous double-homicide of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but it's actually deeply fascinating. Clarence Thomas' 1991 confirmation was interrupted when former colleague Anita Hill brought forth allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace against the then-Supreme Court nominee, which Thomas vehemently denied. To this day, the case remains a "he said, she said" situation with both sides maintaining their version of events. Did these hearings have an impact? What happened to Clarence Thomas post-hearing?
While the allegations temporarily paused Thomas' path to the Supreme Court, Thomas was confirmed by the Senate on October 15, 1991. Of course, during the hearings before his confirmation, Thomas responded to Hill's allegations with his own testimony — and he didn't hold back:
I think something is dreadfully wrong with this country, when any person — any person — in this free country would be subjected to this. This is not a closed room. There was an FBI investigation. This is not an opportunity to talk about difficult matters privately or in a closed environment. This is a circus. It's a national disgrace. And from my standpoint, as a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas. And it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you. You will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured by a committee of the U.S. Senate rather than hung from a tree.
Following Thomas' rebuttal, the Senate voted on the nomination — only four short days after Hill had given her testimony — and appointed Thomas to the Supreme Court by a 52-48 margin, as The New York Times reported on Oct. 15, 1991. "This is more a time for healing, not a time for anger or animus or animosity," the Times quoted Thomas as saying after the vote. "We have to put these things behind us and go forward." He was only the second black man appointed to the Court following Thurgood Marshall, who served from 1967 through 1991, and whom Thomas himself was replacing.
Despite the controversy surrounding the hearings, public opinion polls at the time revealed that far more Americans believed Thomas' side of the story than Hill's, ABC News reported. Still, the vote was a close one: the Times pointed out in its report that Thomas' margin of victory was "narrowed considerably" following Hill's accusations.
But victory by a narrow margin is still victory, and Thomas has now served on the Supreme Court for the past 25 years. Although he remained largely silent on Hill's allegations after his testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he did address the controversy in his 2007 memoir, My Grandfather's Son . In it, he described Hill as "touchy and apt to overreact" and claimed that her work in the Department of Education was "mediocre." Hill responded to Thomas' characterization with an op ed in the New York Times that same year, in which she claimed,
Regrettably, since 1991, I have repeatedly seen this kind of character attack on women and men who complain of harassment and discrimination in the workplace... Those accused of inappropriate behavior also often portray the individuals who complain as bizarre caricatures of themselves — oversensitive, even fanatical, and often immoral — even though they enjoy good and productive working relationships with their colleagues.
Justice Thomas' 25-year career on the Supreme Court has been characterized by silence. Just a few months ago, lawyers, politicians, and reporters across the country were stunned when Thomas asked a question from the bench during a hearing — it was the first time he had asked a question in over 10 years. According to the New York Times, Thomas' reasons for his silence varied between being "self-conscious about the way he spoke" to "out of simple courtesy."
Images: Frank Masi/HBO