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Clarence Thomas and Special Interest Groups
The nomination of Clarence Thomas launched a great deal of concern among liberal interest groups.
Like Robert Bork, Clarence Thomas was an unashamed conservative. During the Thomas confirmation hearings, the traditional liberal African-American special interest groups, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), moved away from other liberal groups to support the nomination of only the second African-American to the Court (Herrnson, Shaiko & Wilcox 1998).
Women's rights groups turned out against the Thomas nomination, especially after Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges were made public. Their efforts, along with those of other traditionally liberal groups, were not enough to stop the Thomas nomination.
Over the years, many groups, both liberal and conservative, as well as the American Bar Association, various law professors, and attorneys from prestigious law firms, have testified on behalf of or against Supreme Court nominees.
This occurs because the appointment of any one justice to the U.S. Supreme Court can, and usually does, have a major impact on their long-term interests and goals. In the years following the appointment to the Court of Justice John Paul Stevens by Gerald R. Ford in 1975, 170 pressure groups have testified for, against, or about the ten nominations that actually resulted in Senate confirmation hearings. The Thomas nomination, after that of Robert Bork, was the second most controversial nomination when it came the number of groups testifying about the nomination (Herrsnson, et al. 1998).
Forty-six groups testified or filed written statements against Clarence Thomas. Most nominations have generated far less pressure-group interest or public action. Fifteen groups publicly participated in four or more hearings by testifying or filing a prepared statement with the committee.
There is only one group that has given testimony in all ten hearings, and that is the American Bar Association, which is the result of its singular role in the process. Taking into consideration the American Bar Association's recommendations is now a part of the formal confirmation process.
The American Bar Association
The American Bar Association was founded in 1878 but it did begin to take on a formal role in the selection of Supreme Court justices until the creation of its Committee on the Federal Judiciary in 1946 (Grossman 1965). The ABA's Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary is charged with evaluating candidates for the federal Judiciary.
This committee essentially grades them on their qualifications for the bench. It always prefers to screen candidates before they are formally nominated, but most presidents are reluctant to give up this near-veto power to an independent professional association.
Clarence Thomas was rated as "Qualified" for the Court of Appeals in 1989. But his relative inexperience affected his evaluation by the committee, which has generally given Supreme Court nominees unanimous highly qualified ratings. In this case, after they looked closely at Thomas's credentials and qualifications, twelve committee members rated him as merely qualified, two rated him as not qualified, and one abstained from voting entirely. No committee members rated him as well qualified. During the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations, the ABA committee very nearly was relieved of its screening role.
A number of members of the Republican Party charged that too many ideological considerations were influencing committee evaluations.
Conservative Victory Party and Citizens United
The range of activities open to interest groups in the judicial nominating process is vast, and different groups often utilize one or more strategies based on a variety of internal and external factors (Caldeira, Hojnacki, & Wright 1996). When Clarence Thomas was nominated, the Conservative Victory Committee and Citizens United ran a number of television commercials to counteract potential opponents of the nominee.
By undertaking such media efforts, these groups obviously hoped to foster grassroots reaction that would have an impact upon the senators who were going to be voting on the nomination.
Exactly how much those efforts influenced the Senate is not easy to measure or verify. But these activities added a new dimension to the confirmation process.
The purpose of media advertising is actually to advance a cause or causes. It is not actually intended to be factually accurate or remotely objective. The potential for miscommunication and distortion of the nominee's view is high, since a sitting judge nominated to fill a higher court vacancy is not able to defend himself or herself, running counter to norms that constrain judges from joining the political battleground.
Alliance for Justice
Early in the confirmation process, the Alliance for Justice received a tip that a teacher at the University of Oklahoma had left the EEOC because Thomas had sexually harassed her. It did not take very much investigation to determine that the teacher was Anita Hill. The Alliance for Justice passed its information along to William Corr. He then requested that Gail Laster, counsel to Metzenbaum's subcommittee on labor, look into the charges. Laster reached Hill on September 5 and Hill said that Laster should look into those allegations. Ricki Seidman, chief investigator for the Labor and Human Resources Committee that was chaired by Senator Kennedy, was contacted next. Hill agreed to talk about the harassment issue (Gross & Vieira 1998).
Polls taken over the weekend following Anita Hill's testimony against Clarence Thomas's nomination indicated that the public overwhelmingly believed Thomas over Hill. This was a critical development in Thomas's favor, along with growing support among black Americans. Blacks backed his confirmation by a wider margin than whites, with an ABC News- Washington Post poll showing 70% of blacks in favor Thomas, and only 50% of whites. USA Today said that 63% of blacks supported Thomas, compared with 55% of whites. The "high-tech lynching speech" seemed to have caused a significant increase in pro-Thomas sentiment over the weekend (Thomas 2002).
As a result of this, members of the Democratic caucus circulated polls demonstrating the support of black Americans for the Thomas nomination on the eve of the Senate vote. These polls served to sway Georgia Democrats Sam Nunn and Wyche Fowler, who wielded two critical votes for Thomas. Another Democratic Senator told his colleagues that he would vote for Thomas specifically because of these polls. The surveys also had a great deal of influence over various other Southern Democrats, who needed strong black support for their upcoming reelection fights. Out of eleven Democrats who ended up voting for Thomas, eight were from the South, and were most interested in retaining their critical African-American electoral base.
African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves
In the heat of the struggle over Clarence Thomas's nomination, a group called African-American Women in Defense of Ourselves formed, seeking to address some of the issues they were facing as a result of the treatment of Anita Hill during and after the hearings. Many black women opposed Thomas's nomination, but found it difficult to find a voice with which to effectively convey that opposition. Even though this new group painstakingly developed a highly sophisticated analysis of the problem, it was not able to attract media coverage during the nomination process. Eventually, they managed to raise sufficient funds to purchase media space, and the group published a statement in the New York Times on 17 November 1991, unfortunately, a month after Thomas was confirmed.
While the statement appeared too late to influence events, it is worth quoting at some length:
Many have erroneously portrayed the allegations against Clarence Thomas as an issue of either gender or race. As women of African descent, we understand sexual harassment as both. We further understand that Clarence Thomas outrageously manipulated the legacy of lynching in order to shelter himself from Anita Hill's allegations. To deflect attention away from the reality of sexual abuse in African-American women's lives, he trivialized and misrepresented this painful part of African-American people's history. This country, which has a long legacy of racism and sexism, has never taken the sexual abuse of Black women seriously. Throughout U.S. history, Black women have been sexually stereotyped as immoral, insatiable, perverse; the initiators in all sexual contact-abusive or otherwise. The common assumption in legal proceedings as well as in the larger society has been that Black women cannot be raped or otherwise sexually abused. As Anita Hill's experience demonstrates, Black women who speak of these matters are not likely to be believed.
In 1991 we cannot tolerate this type of dismissal of any one Black woman's experience or this attack upon our collective character without protest, outrage, and resistance.... No one will speak for us but ourselves.
What is important about this statement is the way it proclaims its strong rejection of the view, held by many supporters of Hill, that race was simply irrelevant to this struggle, apart from Thomas's sophisticated manipulation of it.
Many conservatives during the hearings were convinced that reporters as a group were out to torpedo Thomas by exploiting a news leak. Closely held Senate Judiciary committee information had somehow been disclosed to Newsday's Timothy Phelps and NPR's Nina Totenberg. Their stories about the allegations made…[continue]
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