Hill vs. Thomas: Unresolved issues

October 15, 1991|By Washington Bureau of The Sun

As the Senate tries to decide whether to confirm the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, here are some of the issues its members face concerning the allegations of sexual harassment made by Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill:

MOTIVE: If the allegations are true, the motivation for Judge Thomas to lie is obvious. If they're not true, it's harder to conceive a motivation for Ms. Hill to make them up, particularly if, as four witnesses testified, she's been making the allegations for almost a decade. For this reason, pro-Thomas forces presented witnesses who, while not experts in psychology, suggested that Ms. Hill might have made up the charges as part of a fantasy of romantic rejection. Others suggested that she is politically motivated, although her friends portrayed her as a political conservative who supported the earlier, failed nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork. Still others suggested she was vindictive and wanted to bring down Judge Thomas because he didn't give her a coveted promotion.

CORROBORATION: Ms. Hill has no direct corroborating witnesses, and none of the pro-Thomas co-workers could say what went on during private meetings between the two. But she does have indirect corroboration from three friends and a fellow law professor who testified that she told them of the allegations in the past, long before they became public and long before Mr. Thomas was a judge.

DEMEANOR AS A WITNESS: Senators remarked that both came across as the kinds of witnesses any lawyer would love to have for a client. They were poised without seeming slick, occasionally emotional though at appropriate moments, and without seeming unstrung.

HER CHARACTER: Friends lavishly praised Ms. Hill's honesty and good judgment. Judge Thomas' allies criticized her, calling her selfish, temperamental and prone to fantasy, though none of those characterizations came from anyone claiming to know her particularly well.

HIS CHARACTER: His friends also praised him, saying it was inconceivable he could have done the things he is accused of doing. They questioned why no one else had come forward with similar allegations, saying that men guilty of sexual harassment usually leave a string of victims who come forward once the first charge is made. Ms. Hill's side did provide another supporting account, from a former employee, Angela Wright. But Ms. Wright claimed only that his behavior -- asking her for dates and making some sexually suggestive remarks -- was annoying, not harassment. And Judge Thomas' opponents on the Senate panel decided not to offer her as a witness, partly because of her checkered employment record, which included a firing by Judge Thomas.

CONVINCING DETAIL: Ms. Hill's account featured the sort of specific details that give a story a ring of truth, such as Judge Thomas' alleged mention of a pornographic film star, Long Dong Silver, and his alleged remark, "Who has put pubic hair on my Coke?" Judge Thomas' supporters countered that she didn't offer either of those descriptions to FBI investigators and suggested that she or her supporters could have dug the former detail from a 1988 harassment case in Kansas and the latter from "The Exorcist," a novel about demonic possession.

WHY DID SHE FOLLOW HIM TO A SECOND JOB?: Ms. Hill said she followed Mr. Thomas from the Department of Education to the Equal Employment Opportunity Council because he had temporarily stopped his sexual harassment and because she feared she would lose her job at the Education Department if she stayed behind.

HOW FRIENDLY WAS SHE LATER? After she left the EEOC, Ms. Hill continued to use Judge Thomas as a job reference. She said she had no choice. She also admitted to giving him a ride to the airport after he delivered a speech at Oral Roberts University, where she was then teaching. One witness said she volunteered. She said she was asked. Two other acquaintances testified she remarked how happy she was when Judge Thomas got the Supreme Court nomination, and that she said, "He deserves it." She said she was only assenting to their remarks. A friend of hers said Ms. Hill reacted by saying that the nomination "turned her stomach."

PHYLLIS BERRY: Ms. Hill said she did not know EEOC employee Phyllis Berry. Ms. Berry testified that not only did she know Ms. Hill, but that she knew her well enough to conclude that she had probably "had a crush" on Mr. Thomas while at the EEOC.

WHY DID SHE WAIT SO LONG TO COME FORWARD? She said that she always feared Judge Thomas could damage her career, particularly while she was working for him. Once she left his employment, she said, she just wanted to put the behavior in the past.

WHY DID SHE COME FORWARD AT ALL? A friend or acquaintance who had heard the allegations earlier apparently mentioned them to a Senate staffer. That led to investigators' asking Ms. Hill whether she would tell her story to the committee. She agreed to do so if her name and the charges would remain private. Only after the charges spilled into the news media, apparently from a leak on the Senate staff, did Ms. Hill agree to testify in public.

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