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A look at Justice Clarence Thomas' controversial tenure on the Supreme Court

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We've been reporting over the past month about Supreme Court justices and the gifts they receive but don't always report. Several members of the court have come under scrutiny on that front, but most of the new reporting has focused on Justice Clarence Thomas, whose tenure has been controversial from the start. NPR senior Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving is here with us to talk about that history. Hi, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Sasha.

PFEIFFER: Ron, for those who don't remember or weren't born yet, remind us about Clarence Thomas' path to the Supreme Court.

ELVING: He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush in 1991, succeeding Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court and an icon of the civil rights movement. That's a crucial part of the whole narrative. Marshall was important to civil rights leaders at the time, and they felt his seat on the court had been a long time coming and belonged to the Black American community. Thomas was controversial from the start because he was young, just 43 at the time, and because he'd only been an appeals court judge for less than two years, but mostly because back all the way to when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under President Ronald Reagan, he had been expressing strong views on welfare and affirmative action that caused him to be denounced by some civil rights leaders.

PFEIFFER: And his confirmation hearings were infamous.

ELVING: Yes. He had to be confirmed by the Senate, and that meant going before the Senate Judiciary Committee for hearings. They asked about his views of various cases including Roe v. Wade. And his standard reply was he couldn't comment on any issue that might be before the court. It might, quote, "undermine my impartiality." But despite that kind of answer, he seemed to have the votes to be confirmed.

PFEIFFER: His hearings also got a lot of attention because of a young woman named Anita Hill.

ELVING: Hill had worked for Thomas at the EEOC. She came forward with explosive and explicit charges of sexual harassment.

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ANITA HILL: Because I was extremely uncomfortable talking about sex with him at all, and particularly in such a graphic way, I told him that I did not want to talk about these subjects.

ELVING: So Thomas' nomination seemed to hang by a thread before he returned to face the committee and deny Hill's charges across the board, calling the hearing a travesty and a disgrace and adding this.

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CLARENCE THOMAS: As a Black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity Blacks who, in any way, deign to think for themselves.

ELVING: So the Senate panel, which, by the way, was chaired by a senator, Joe Biden of Delaware, struggled to sort out the conflicting testimony, but sent the nomination on to the Senate floor. And Thomas was confirmed - 52-48. And that was the closest confirmation vote in more than a century at the time. Joe Biden voted not to confirm. And that was 32 years ago. And it's hard now to appreciate just how much that case seemed to linger in the national atmosphere at the time.

PFEIFFER: Ron, how would you describe the fallout of that and the consequences of it outside the court?

ELVING: It haunted Thomas on the court. And in the election the following year, several women ran specifically for the Senate because they had not seen any women on the Senate Judiciary Committee in those hearings. That year, 1992, the number of women in the Senate overall went from two to six. And among those six, two are now the most senior Democrats in the chamber - Patty Murray of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California.

PFEIFFER: The recent controversies about Thomas have involved money in his relationships with other people, including a businessman friend, Harlan Crow, who paid for his vacations - some of them who bought Justice Thomas' mother's house in Georgia. There was also an incident in 2020 in which Thomas' impartiality came into question.

ELVING: There were serious questions asked about Thomas and his refusal to step away when there were appeals brought before the court involving the election results of 2020. He didn't recuse, and he sat while the court considered those cases. And that has raised questions because Thomas' wife, Ginni Thomas, who has been a prominent activist involved in a number of conservative causes over the decades, was, at that time, sending texts to the White House chief of staff discussing various means of resisting the result of the 2020 election. But as that case continues to develop, we can expect to hear Ginni Thomas' name and that of her husband in the news.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Ron Elving. Thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.