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Clarence Thomas's Ethics Problems, Then and Now | The Nation

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Clarence Thomas's Ethics Problems, Then and Now

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Why now? What, after almost twenty years, prompted Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, to leave a message on Brandeis professor Anita Hill's office voicemail asking her to apologize for accusing Justice Thomas of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearings?

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Bruce Shapiro
Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor to The Nation, is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma...

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The timing was interesting. Ginni Thomas placed her call to Hill the morning after the New York Times reported that Virginia Thomas's new Liberty Central organization accepted "large, unidentified contributions" totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those untraceable dollars came in the flood of right-wing funding following the Citizens United campaign finance decision, in which Justice Thomas voted with the majority. The Times reported that a wide range of legal ethicists said Liberty Central's financing raises "knotty questions" about a conflict of interest for Justice Thomas.

Did this accusation heat up the rankling sense of persecution both Thomases feel about Hill's old charge? To understand the connection between these two episodes it's necessary to scrape away some of the mythology that has grown up around Thomas's confirmation. The issue in 1991 wasn't just the vicious and crude sexual bullying Hill ascribed to Thomas, who had been her boss in the Reagan administration's Education Department and later at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The issue was perjury: was he lying under oath?

It is now nearly forgotten that Thomas's ethics record gave Hill's accusation traction. Briefly a federal appeals judge, and before that a Reagan operative charged with undercutting civil rights enforcement, Thomas had a long habit of telling untruthful stories. As the late civil rights scholar Haywood Burns, dean of the law school at City University of New York, testified during the '91 hearings before Hill's accusations surfaced, Thomas's testimony and record were marked by "a lack of candor, compassion and ethical judgment."

Reporting to Congress as head of the EEOC, Thomas misrepresented his agency's nonenforcement of age discrimination law. As a federal judge he sat on an appeals court review of the criminal conviction of Col. Oliver North, despite having spoken out in support of North's actions in the Iran/Contra scandal. He failed to recuse himself from a case involving his political patron, Senator John Danforth.

To score points, Thomas even lied about his sister: falsely describing her in speeches as pathetically welfare dependent, a mocking depiction utterly at odds with the proud and hard existence of a woman who worked a series of minimum-wage jobs for most of her life to support her family.

Perhaps Ginni Thomas's phone call was a smokescreen—an attempted distraction from the reporting on Liberty Central's funding. Maybe it was unrelated. Either way, twenty years later it bears remembering that Hill's accusations were not just a matter of "she said, he said." Hill, in 1991, testified as a credible witness of unquestioned probity. Thomas had a documented ethics problem then—and, it appears, an ongoing ethics problem now. Back then, Thomas's truth problem obscured his shameful role in undoing the very civil rights tradition that made his nomination possible. Today, the Thomases' evocation of that old episode obscures an ethically challenged Supreme Court justice complicit in handing American politics over to corporations and anonymous far-right donors—that is the real scandal.

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