Senate's Judiciary Committee, then and now

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – On Oct. 11, 1991, 14 white men grilled African-American law professor Anita Hill in a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room about her allegations of sexual harassment by then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh will testify is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 26, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

Four days later, Thomas, also African-American, was confirmed in a 52-48 vote to a lifetime seat on the high court by a Democratic-controlled Senate comprised of 98 men and only two women.

On Thursday, 27 years after Hill’s testimony, psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford will find herself in the same hot seat, prepared to testify that U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in 1982 when he was 17 years old and she was 15.

Hill was put through a rigorous interrogation by senators – the Washington Post in a recent story portrayed it as “withering skeptical questioning” – and some critics saw a double standard, saying Thomas got a smoother ride.

Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who as a senator in 1991 presided over the confirmation hearings, later apologized for how he ran the session with Hill.

Despite bitter, partisan accusations between Republicans and Democrats in the run-up to Thursday’s hearing, Ford likely will face a less confrontational Senate Judiciary Committee in the era of the #MeToo campaign, which has raised Americans’ awareness about sexual assault.

“Our goal is to have a respectful hearing,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said.

The Republican has ignored Democrats’ demands, however, for a reopening of an FBI investigation of Kavanaugh and testimony from possible witnesses to the alleged misconduct.

And, nearly three decades after the Thomas-Hill confrontation, the Judiciary Committee is still dominated by white males, including all 11 of its Republicans.

Republicans were so cognizant of that imbalance, some Democrats charged, that in an unusual move they hired a female outside counsel to conduct the questioning of Ford on their behalf.

The Democratic side of the committee has diversified since 1991. Four of the 10 Democrats are women, including the senior member, and the group includes two blacks and one Asian-American.

The full Senate is also a somewhat more diverse body than it was in 1991. There are now a record 23 women in the 100-member chamber, with six Republicans among them.

Norman Ornstein, who studies politics and Congress at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the Republicans could suffer a political defeat if Ford proves to be a persuasive witness in the glare of the nationally televised hearing on Thursday.

He said it is unlikely to turn Republican voters into Democrats but could undermine their determination to vote in midterm congressional elections on Nov. 6.

“The impact it could have now and very possibly in the future is a group of people who have voted Republican and voted more regularly will just not vote this time and instead say, ‘maybe next time.’”

Reporting By Richard Cowan; editing by Jonathan Oatis

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