On September 10th, 1991, a then 48-year-old, Democratic Senator from Delaware, and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden, gave his opening statements in Judge Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing. Biden, looking more brown-eyed than blue at that age, warned Thomas of the party’s biggest concern amid the judge’s impending confirmation: that he intended to apply a “natural law” philosophy to the Constitution.
“The first of these views:,” Biden stated, “Seize natural law as a moral code, a set of rules saying what is right and what is wrong, a set of rules and a moral code which the Supreme Court should impose on the country.” He continued, “The Supreme Court, as you know, Judge, actually took such an approach in the past, holding in 1873, for example, that women could not become lawyers because it was not, in the Court’s phrase, ‘in their nature.’” The primary Democratic concern was that Thomas, as a Supreme Court Justice, would “judge the morality of all our activities,” using the court to make those judgments into law.
Wearing a red tie and not altogether as stoic as we have come to know him as a justice, Thomas, who was only 43 at the time, joked lightheartedly with the committee, his wife Ginni in the audience lending a supportive eye. In retrospect, I wonder if the ultimate irony of Biden’s statements led at all to what would become the mutest Supreme Court Justice in the history of the court. Given the accusations to come, how one could then be the voice of moral judicial decision-making is tricky. Probably best to keep a low profile.
Twenty-seven years later, forget that irony has turned into expectation (insert random anti-gay Congressman found soliciting sex from male prostitutes). Arrest a poor man of color and post his 2am mug shot all over the evening news and no one bats an eye or comes to his defense. When it comes to sexual predators, why use a ski mask when wearing a suit and asserting yourself as a spokesperson for morality draws much less scrutiny.
It took a year for the public perception of Anita Hill’s credibility to shift towards her favor. Immediately following Anita Hill’s testimony, 46% of those surveyed viewed her unfavorably and only 17% viewed her favorably. Only 24% believed Anita Hill while 58% believed Justice Thomas. A year later, polls shifted dramatically: 44% believed Hill and only 34% believed Thomas. The #MeToo movement aside,1 it has taken a year for the public to go from a hung jury verdict in the Bill Cosby case to a conviction that should insure Cosby takes his last breath in prison.
Certainly, parading oneself as the moral standard is a good disguise. As one New York Times headline read, “Cliff Huxstable was Bill Cosby’s Sickest Joke.” There is a lot of truth to that statement. As a young girl from a divorced home, I idealized the Huxstables and everything they stood for, which became publicly synonymous with the Bill Cosby brand. The mask of morality alters reality in the onlooker. It is a bit like reaching that age when you learn your parents are flawed adult beings no different than anyone else. You idealize them on some level as children, only to grow up to learn that cheery disposition was really alcoholism and that woman you thought was your aunt was your father’s mistress. Perhaps that is why the mask works so well – we’ve been trained from a young age to believe it.
1 Disclaimer: There is no credible way to analyze the comparison of Justice Thomas and Bill Cosby (or more accurately, the believability of Anita Hill and Andrea Constand) completely in one blog post. Only an impossible-to-create comprehensive theory encompassing cultural shifts, racism, sexism, right-wing authoritarianism, politics, and the overall complexity of the human brain could do it.