By Bridget Sjoberg | Staff Writer
The nomination of a new Supreme Court justice is already an important event for our country, but it can become a national controversy when the process is interrupted by accusations of sexual misconduct or assault. This type of occurrence has recently happened twice in our system — first in 1991 and again in 2018.
The first instance occurred when Clarence Thomas was nominated to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court. Thomas was a conservative judge, nominated by President George H.W. Bush, who was accused of sexual harassment by university professor Anita Hill. Thomas denied all claims and the Senate ended up confirming him as a justice on the court.
The more recent controversy was in 2018 over the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, nominated by President Trump. Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct by psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford, who claimed that the referred incident occurred while the two were in high school. After hearings and an investigation, Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice.
Both incidents sparked intense controversy not only over whether the men were fit for their Supreme Court positions, but it also raised conversation about how to handle sexual assault accusations and give both sides a chance to tell their version of the story.
Baylor journalism professor Maxey Parrish mentioned how the #MeToo movement beginning in late 2017 influenced the conversation about sexual assault leading up to the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018.
“The prevailing currents in our society impacted the way people reacted to the Kavanaugh hearings,” Parrish said. “Victims of sexual assault have become more vocal, and there’s been more awareness of it. I think there has also been increased instances of it. As a result, it has gone from a back-burner issue to a front-burner issue. The hearings focused a lot of attention on the greater issue not just of a man and a woman and the hearings, but on the whole #MeToo movement in the country.”
Austin junior Tanner Wright also sees the #MeToo movement as having played an important role in the Kavanaugh hearings, separating them from those of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas.
“The last time a nominee for the nation’s highest bench was accused of something like this was Clarence Thomas in 1991,” Wright said. “The difference between then and now is the #MeToo movement. Sure — other powerful people have been accused and even charged, but many of those were Hollywood men or business leaders who have already had their heyday. Now Justice Kavanaugh, having been nominated to the bench, will be able to influence the American political landscape for years to come.”
Wright also sees the prominence of social media in our society today as having influenced the conversations surrounding Kavanaugh’s nomination when compared to those occurring about Thomas.
“When Thomas was accused in 1991 by Anita Hill, there was nowhere for everyday people to share their opinions widely online — people just listened to the radio or watched the news,” Wright said. “In 2018, people took sides and made sure others knew which side they had chosen, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.”
Parrish also viewed social media as an important outlet for sparking conversation around the role of sexual assault during the Kavanaugh hearings, and the internet as allowing people to receive live updates and news coverage.
“Everyone has a voice now, and there’s a two-way flow of information. These things are all brand new—many social movements, #MeToo included, have utilized these things. The real time issue, the fact that you can watch and comment on things and that everyone is part of the discussion is something so brand new—we’re still trying to wrap our heads around what all that means,” Parrish said.
Parrish saw that a major difference between the Hill/Thomas and Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh controversies came as a result of the #MeToo movement, making the topic of sexual assault one being brought up and discussed more often, despite personal opinions relating to the Kavanaugh hearings.
“In the 1990’s, we didn’t have as great an awareness of the issue of sexual assault and there was in many circles a prevailing attitude that this is just a guy thing or that boys will be boys,” Parrish said. “There was an idea that these things are OK because they’re guys. I don’t know what happened or didn’t happen with Thomas or Kavanaugh, but I think the prevailing attitude today is that this is not OK — you can’t let people get away with things like this, and we’re recognizing that this is not just a thing guys do. It’s healthier that victims are coming forward and speaking up.”
Parrish also recognized that another difference between the 1991 and 2018 situations was that the Kavanaugh hearings were more political and didn’t revolve as much around whether he was a qualified candidate for his nominated position.
“Some people wanted to use the Kavanaugh situation as a political tool to attack the president. As I recall, the Clarence Thomas hearings were more about him and how fit he was to be a Supreme Court justice,” Parrish said. “In a sense, the Kavanaugh hearings were about Trump. You obviously don’t want to diminish what the accusations were because I don’t know what did or did not happen, but there’s no doubt that we live in more highly polarized political times than we did in the 90s’. We’ve developed a culture that says if you and I disagree politically, you’re a bad person—we demonize the other side.”
Parrish hopes that younger generations growing up in this politically polarizing time don’t normalize the sense of divisiveness and can work to reach common ground and compromise despite differences of opinion.
“Something that concerns me as a professor who is working with young people is that this is the only world some students are aware of — they’ve never experienced a time when leaders in the House and Senate could be completely at odds with each other but also get together later and be friends,” Parrish said. “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean you’re a terrible person, but young people today have only seen that. I hope what they’re able to do is undo the ill will — it’s bad for the country because democracy is not about one side getting its way.”
Wright sees current nominations and hearings, particularly the recent Kavanaugh hearings, as relevant for college students to be aware of, as he said events occurring now will shape the nation for upcoming years.
“The hearings were absolutely relevant for a college student because a Supreme Court nominee like Kavanaugh can potentially serve on the bench for decades,” Wright said. “By the time Justice Kavanaugh retires from the bench, today’s college students could be parents or even grandparents. When a justice wields the power of constitutional review, he or she is shaping the American future for years to come.”
Parrish said that controversies like those of Hill/Thomas and Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh point to the fact that our nation still needs to make progress when it comes to the issue of sexual assault, regardless of political opinion or which involved parties you personally believe.
“Without judging what Kavanaugh may or may not have done, I will say with certainty that we still have a long way to go,” Parrish said. “We need to create a culture in which people are not objectified or viewed purely as things to use —people need to be fully respected regardless of their gender. We still have a long way to go, but we should be ambitious and try.”