President George H. W. Bush's first Supreme Court nominee, David Souter, was confirmed 90-9 in 1990. The following year, a second vacancy was created by the retirement of Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American justice on the Supreme Court. Bush clearly wanted to make sure the court did not revert to its previously all-white composition, but he also wanted to be sure he found a nominee who was both black and conservative.
He found his man on the D.C. Appeals Court, "the Little Supreme Court," where Clarence Thomas had served since the previous year. Before that, Thomas had held a series of political appointments under Bush and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. These had included being chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in the early 1980s. Thomas had made a name for himself as a staunch opponent of affirmative action and other attempts to eliminate group preferences — even those intended to correct for past discrimination. He had also criticized the high court's landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, which established a constitutional right to abortion.
Because Thomas had been on the bench little more than a year, liberal senators and interest groups thought they might successfully oppose him in a body that had so recently rejected the nomination of Robert Bork. But the political dynamic was different for Thomas, in large part because the Southern Democrats who had opposed Bork found many of their African-American constituents in favor of Thomas. The nominee also had a moving personal history: Raised in poverty in segregated Pin Point, Ga., Thomas rose to attend Yale Law School. He also had a powerful champion in Republican Sen. John Danforth. Clarence had worked for Danforth when the latter was attorney general of Missouri, and again after Danforth came to the Senate.
Learning from the failed Bork nomination, the Bush White House reacted quickly to negative attacks on the Thomas nomination from prominent organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League and the National Organization for Women. Conservative groups responded by launching extensive media campaigns to counteract any negative publicity.
Hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee highlighted Thomas' inexperience and his hesitancy to answer questions regarding controversial issues. Despite his previous criticism of Roe, for example, he refused to say whether he would vote to overturn it. After its initial set of hearings, the committee sent the Thomas nomination to the full Senate without a recommendation.
Three days before the Senate was scheduled to vote, accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas became public. They were lodged by law professor Anita Hill of the University of Oklahoma, who had worked for Thomas at the Department of Education and at the EEOC. Hill's allegations, made in private, became national headlines after a Judiciary Committee member leaked them to the news media. The Senate voted to return the nomination to the Judiciary Committee for further investigation.
Thomas avoided responding to individual charges but issued a blanket denial of all allegations. The committee held three days of hearings that were nationally televised and attracted extraordinary attention from the public. The hearings captured exceptionally high television ratings and drew national attention not only to the Thomas nomination and the Senate's confirmation process, but also to issues of gender politics within Congress and of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Hill presented a damning indictment of Thomas' behavior. But the nominee was also effective in his defense — particularly in his angry denunciation of the proceedings as "a high-tech lynching for an uppity black who in any way deigns to think for himself." Republicans on the committee tried to undermine Hill's credibility. They also suggested Thomas' real offense was to espouse political views contrary to those Democrats wanted black people to have.
Two days after the hearings ended, with most polls showing the preponderance of public opinion favoring Thomas' version of the relationship over Hill's, the Senate voted to confirm Thomas 52-48. Two Republicans broke ranks to oppose Thomas, but 11 Democrats, most from the South, voted for him. It was the closest vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee in more than a century.