Former Vice President Joe Biden seems much more eager to speak out against a Supreme Court nominee now than he was in 1991.
Biden has, maybe unsurprisingly, called for the postponement of the confirmation vote for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh — in light of the accusation that Kavanaugh attempted to rape a peer, Christine Blasey Ford, when they were high schoolers attending a house party.
“Vice President Biden believes Professor Ford deserves a fair and respectful hearing of her allegations, and that the committee should undertake a thorough and nonpartisan effort to get to the truth, wherever it leads,” a Biden spokesperson said in a statement provided to CNN. “He believes the vote should be postponed to allow this to happen appropriately, because this is an appointment for life to the nation’s highest court, and getting the decision right is more important than getting it done on a rushed timeline.”
And Biden would know a thing or two about hearings for sexual misconduct allegations against a Supreme Court nominee: He presided over the hearing for questioning of Anita Hill, who famously accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment while he was going through the confirmation process. Whether Biden’s handling of the hearing was “respectful,” however, remains up for debate.
Hill had accused Thomas of repeated sexual harassment during their time working together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was her boss.
“He spoke about acts that he had seen in pornographic films involving such matters as women having sex with animals, and films showing group sex or rape scenes. He talked about pornographic materials depicting individuals with large penises, or large breasts involved in various sex acts," Hill told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991.
For his part, Biden, at a Monday event at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Ireland, said he had believed Hill during the hearing and understands the pressure against women not to speak out.
“For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real, whether or not she forgets facts, whether or not it’s been made worse or better over time. But nobody fails to understand that this is like jumping into a cauldron,” Biden said.
But even at the time of the hearing — back in 1991 — members of Biden’s own party harshly criticized the future vice president, who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, composed of (14 white men) that questioned Hill. Democrats believed Biden was too friendly to Republicans, who subjected Hill to sexist questions.
"You testified this morning that the most embarrassing question involved — this is not too bad — women's large breasts," Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, for one example, said to Hill about her accusations against Thomas. "That is a word we use all the time. That was the most embarrassing aspect of what Judge Thomas had said to you."
Additionally, Biden prevented Hill from answering questions about her conversations with Thomas related to Roe v. Wade, explaining that he believed those questions to be out of bounds — even though Thomas had said, under oath, that he’d never discussed the landmark abortion case in his life. More damningly, some of Biden’s line of questioning implied that Hill might not have been telling the truth.
"Can you tell us how you felt at the time?” Biden asked. “Were you uncomfortable, were you embarrassed, did it not concern you? How did you feel about it?"
Biden ultimately voted against Thomas, but his comments on Kavanaugh have dredged up memories and criticisms of Hill’s treatment on Capitol Hill.
The former vice president has acknowledged that he and Hill have not spoken since the hearing, but conceded that he owed Hill an apology.
"I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill," Biden said in 2017 as the #MeToo movement gained traction. "I owe her an apology."
Hill, however, seemed less inclined to believe that Biden was a changed man.
“He … doesn’t understand that it wasn’t just that I felt it was not fair,” Hill told the Washington Post last year. “It was that women were looking to the Senate Judiciary Committee and his leadership to really open the way to have these kinds of hearings,” Hill said. “They should have been using best practices to show leadership on this issue on behalf of women’s equality. And they did just the opposite.”
Cover image: Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden headlines the 22nd annual Human Rights Campaign National Dinner at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on September 15, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images)