Thomas' Wife Reignites Anita Hill Scandal Nineteen years ago this month, the nation was riveted as law professor Anita Hill, accused her one-time boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexually harassing her. Now Thomas' wife has left a voice-mail message on Hill's office phone asking her to apologize. For more, Melissa Block talks to NPR's Nina Totenberg.

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Thomas' Wife Reignites Anita Hill Scandal

Thomas' Wife Reignites Anita Hill Scandal

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Nineteen years ago this month, the nation was riveted as law professor Anita Hill, accused her one-time boss, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexually harassing her. Now Thomas' wife has left a voice-mail message on Hill's office phone asking her to apologize. For more, Melissa Block talks to NPR's Nina Totenberg.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Nineteen years ago, the nation was riveted by the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Law professor Anita Hill, a one-time aide to Thomas, accused her former boss of sexual harassment.

Now, a warning before we play some tape from that hearing, some language you're about to hear is graphic and may be inappropriate for young listeners.

Here's Anita Hill before Congress in 1991.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Ms. ANITA HILL (Former Attorney-Adviser to Clarence Thomas): He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises or large breasts involved in various sex acts. On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.

BLOCK: Clarence Thomas called the allegations a lie, and he called the hearings a circus and a national disgrace.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. CLARENCE THOMAS (Associate Justice, U.S. Supreme Court): 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 kow-tow to an old order, this is what will happen to you.

BLOCK: Well, now, the whole episode has been rekindled by Thomas's wife, Virginia, who called Anita Hill 11 days ago and left a voicemail message asking her to apologize.

With us to discuss this stranger-than-fiction turn of events is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg, who broke the story of the sexual harassment allegations back in 1991. And, Nina, tell us first about the phone call from Virginia Thomas.

NINA TOTENBERG: Well, she called Professor Hill's Brandeis University office at 7:31 in the morning on October 9th, identified herself and said: I would love you to consider an apology sometimes and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband. There's more, but that's the gist of it. Hill apparently didn't get the message for several days because of the holiday weekend, and when she did, she wasn't sure whether it was really Mrs. Thomas calling or a crank.

So she conferred with her long-time friend and one-time lawyer, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, and decided to turn the matter over to the Brandeis Campus Police, who in turn referred it to the FBI.

I'm told that the bureau then called Mrs. Thomas, who confirmed that she had, indeed, made the call.

BLOCK: And Mrs. Thomas issued a public statement yesterday saying that this was an olive branch to Professor Hill. She had not intended any offense, but I gather Professor Hill did take offense.

TOTENBERG: Hill told the New York Times that Mrs. Thomas, quote, "can't ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive." She also said she has no intention of apologizing since she testified truthfully.

BLOCK: You know, why now? Why would Mrs. Thomas have made such a call? It's been nearly two decades since these hearings.

TOTENBERG: Well, I haven't talked to Mrs. Thomas, but let me mention two perhaps motivating factors. This took place almost to the day on the anniversary of these hearings, and one can imagine she was just sitting there very early in the morning stewing.

In addition on that day, the New York Times ran a front-page article discussing Mrs. Thomas's elevated political role in the last year, her links to the Tea Party Movement and the problems that that might or might not pose for her husband.

BLOCK: Yeah, and let's tick through some of that for a moment. What are Virginia Thomas's links with the Tea Party?

TOTENBERG: Well, long active in conservative politics, Mrs. Thomas has assumed a far more visible role in the last year, founding a group called Liberty Central, which advertises itself as linked to the Tea Party. She's spoken publicly about opposing what she calls the tyranny of the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.

As president and CEO of Liberty Central, she's raised money from anonymous donors, over a half-million dollars to begin with and presumably much more since then.

BLOCK: And does Virginia Thomas's activity raise a conflict of interest problem for Justice Thomas?

TOTENBERG: Well, the answer to that is no and yes. It's complicated. The conflict of interest statute is basically aimed at financial conflicts. So basically, legal ethics experts say that a spouse's political opinions don't matter. That's particularly true in the modern age, when spouses have their own careers and are free to express themselves politically.

BLOCK: But would it lead to a situation where the public could lose confidence in a justice or the impartiality of the court if that justice's spouse is out campaigning against the health care bill, and then a bill about the health care a case about the health care bill comes before the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, the ethics experts all say that the only solution to that problem is restraint on the part of the spouse or the justice, who can always recuse himself.

There is, however, one fly in the ointment for Justice Thomas, according to NYU ethics expert Stephen Gillers. Liberty Central has accepted a great deal of money from anonymous donors, all of which is legal under the Supreme Court's most recent campaign finance decision.

But Professor Gillers notes that an opportunistic donor, by giving money to the organization that pays Mrs. Thomas's salary is in fact giving a financial benefit to Justice Thomas, too, and that could constitute a financial conflict.

BLOCK: A financial conflict, but if those donors are anonymous, how would we know if there were such a conflict?

TOTENBERG: We wouldn't. Mrs. Thomas says that the court knows who's given money, but we don't. And we don't know of any kind of check on that.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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