The 27 years since the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings have not dimmed the memory for two of Anita Hill’s lawyers, and they have some lessons—and advice—for the California psychologist who is making a sexual assault allegation against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
In 1991, Emma Coleman Jordan had just become the first African-American president of the Association of American Law Schools when news broke that Hill was coming forward with sexual harassment allegations against President George H.W. Bush nominee Thomas. Susan Deller Ross, a nationally recognized civil rights and discrimination expert, was and still is a member of the Georgetown University Law Center faculty, where Jordan also now teaches.
Jordan knew Hill since they had been on a panel together discussing commercial law. She decided, she said, to call Hill, then a professor at the University of Oklahoma Law School. “I asked her if she had legal representation,” Jordan recalled. “She said, ‘No,’ and my mouth flew open because they were already saying she was going to testify.”
Jordan and others, including Georgetown’s Ross, Janet Napolitano and the late John Frank, soon formed a legal team for Hill. Harvard Law School’s Charles Ogletree became the “face” of the team throughout the hearings.
Jordan and Ross see some similarities to the events now unfolding with the accusation by Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her at a summer party when they were in high school in 1982. Ford was 15 and Kavanaugh would have been 17.
Ford is represented by Debra Katz of Washington’s Katz, Marshall & Banks, who said Monday Ford is willing to testify. Kavanaugh has flatly denied any misconduct, insisting “categorically and unequivocally” he did nothing wrong.
What follow are the two women’s observations on similarities and differences between the Hill and Ford situations as well as their advice for Ford if she testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The conversations, which were separate, were edited for length and clarity.
What do the Hill and Ford events have in common?
Jordan: Even 27 years later, the Senate Judiciary Committee is caught flat footed. There is no avenue for protected testimony to come forward. They have this confidential process but we know that matters of sexual predation, sexual assault, are long simmering. We know that from the Catholic Church experience; we know that from the Bill Cosby episodes. It takes women a long time to gather the courage to say what their truth is and the courage to go up against a man with power and fortune. The scrambling of the majority response to this information—that part, I think, is the same, sadly. I can say that it’s not a matter of political party or even gender.
It’s also good to see that the lie detector test approach we used is now being used in this case. That part was important. We got Paul Minor, a retired FBI agent to do the polygraph of Anita. We knew it would be important to support her credibility.
What differences stand out?
Ross: I think this seems different in many ways. In the case of Thomas, there was a lot of corroborating evidence for Hill but [the committee] deliberately kept it out. There doesn’t sound like there’s much corroborating evidence for Ford, except her own recollections and interaction with her therapist and husband, but this accusation was made well before there was any thought of [Kavanaugh] being named to the Supreme Court.
Jordan: There were other people Anita told at the time and they testified. What I understand of Dr. Ford’s, she was a teenager and did not tell anyone. She was afraid to tell her parents because she had had a beer and wasn’t supposed to be drinking. The lack of the contemporaneous reports are different, and it’s fully understandable but that is a difference.
A major difference is this is an accusation of a violent assault. I don’t think anybody thought Clarence Thomas could have been arrested for what he did. Violence wasn’t part of the equation. In my mind, this is two or three steps up in significance because it’s an accusation of violent assault, an attempted rape.
And the time period between the events and the nomination—a big difference there. This is a much longer time difference—nearly 40 years.
What advice would you give today to Christine Blasey Ford?
Ross: I would think it would be important for her to talk about why it was difficult for her to talk about it, why it took so long to come to grips with it, how did it impact her?
I think her feelings are very important for people to understand. They don’t know how it would feel to be 15 years old and have something like that happen to you. I’d want her to talk about that and how her feelings about that have changed over the years. The reason for not telling her parents are obvious but why not girlfriends and her husband when they got married.
Get her therapist to talk about it—did she find Dr. Ford’s story believable, and her husband—how did it impact her marriage? It is very personal and she may not want to talk about it. Who knows if the Republicans on the committee will even let her talk about it.
Jordan: I know that one of the most poignant moments in the hearing was when Anita’s parents and her family came into the hearing. They were there silently to support her.
One piece of advice is to take care of herself and marshal her support network—family, friends. That will be important for the reality of support but also for the image of support. It’s important to communicate she is part of a family, a network, and to find a way to communicate the depth and breadth of support that she has.
I also would advise her to spend time with her sources of positive reinforcement of her identity. It could be her church, her therapist, her family, her husband. That psychological and spiritual identity reinforcement is important when going up against a political machine. The brutality of the political arena is merciless.
She should be careful to identify the core of the facts that she does recall. Don’t let anybody push her into saying things that are not verifiable—that’s what they’ll try to do and use that to say she is lying. What does she remember—the color of the bedroom, the house, the smell, anything she has a vivid memory of. Her personal perception—where was the bathroom she hid in. That’s what her lawyer will prep her on. And know when she doesn’t remember something and be prepared to say it without embarrassment.