I found a BBC article on the controversy, the first sentence of that article reads:

Top White House candidate Joe Biden has denied treating a woman badly when she accused a Supreme Court nominee of harassment before Congress in 1991.

Later on in the article there is a brief description of the actual controversy:

In 1991, Ms Hill was called to testify at Mr Thomas' confirmation hearing after an FBI interview with her was leaked to the press.

The hearing was conducted by an all-white, all-male panel, and several women apparently willing to corroborate Ms Hill's account were not called to testify by Mr Biden.

In addition to that, I have found that Joe Biden chaired the hearing.

Without taking sides in the controversy, I am not sure about the extent to which Biden acted badly. Is it only his failure to call those other witnesses that he's blamed for or is there more? For example, the article says the panel was "all-white" and "all-male", however, it's not clear to me if that was Biden's decision or if that was just the composition the committee.

To summarise, my question is: what is the full extent of the Joe Biden - Anita Hill controversy?


3 Answers 3


Composition of the committee

For example, the article says the panel was "all-white" and "all-male", however, it's not clear to me if that was Biden's decision or if that was just the composition the committee.

That was just the composition of the committee. The entire committee sits for the Supreme Court nominee. Joe Biden had no control over the composition of the committee, although he may have had input on what Democrats were on it.

He might have had more control over membership in the subcommittees, but for a Supreme Court nomination, it's the whole committee.

In the 101st Congress, there were only two female members of the Senate: Nancy Kassebaum Baker and Barbara Mikulski. I don't know if there were any black Senators. The only non-white Senators may have been Daniel Inouye (Japanese) and Daniel Akaka (Hawaiian). I'm counting Jewish Senator Arlen Specter as white. Of the four, only Inouye was a lawyer (and thus eligible to be on the Judiciary committee). Obviously Biden had no control over the composition of the Senate.

Under Biden's control

In addition, as you seem to be aware, she asked for three (or four according to Wikipedia) other witnesses to testify but was denied. The claim is that Biden had already agreed to an expedited hearing and did not want to go back on his word. This is the place where Biden could have done things differently. He did not need to promise an expedited hearing. Or he could have included a proviso to handle if there was a definite challenge to Thomas' nomination. Or he could have gone back on his word. Those things were under his control.

There is also the possibility that he could have done something as the chairman of the committee to have made things easier on Anita Hill. It's unclear what that something might have been. But he was the chair of the committee. He had at least some options. As an example, during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, they sent out investigators to talk to witnesses and the members of the committee were able to read their reports. The same thing could have been done with Hill's allegations. Then they could have only asked her to testify if it might have changed the outcome. It's unclear if Hill would have wanted that.

  • As I understood Biden also allowed Thomas to testify before and after Hill did. Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 9:52
  • At the Kavanaugh hearings, the GOP also used a female lawyer as a go between to conduct the questioning of Dr Ford.
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 12:44
  • According to Wikipedia, the list of African-American senators is not long. In particular, there were no African-Americans in the Senate between the unseating of Edward Brooke in 1979 and the seating of Carol Moseley Braun in 1993. Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 14:36
  • And for additional irony: Moseley Braun decided to challenge Alan Dixon, the incumbent Democratic senator from Illinois, largely because of Dixon's decision to back Clarence Thomas's nomination. Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 14:48

I don't want to take anything away from Brythan's answer. It is on point and answers the question. The controversy is easily explained as not allowing the additional witnesses and ultimately not allowing the nomination of Justice Thomas to the supreme court.

However, the answer while on the face of it is accurate, leads to several misunderstandings in context.

First: the hearing is not a trial. While some rules of testimony are similar to trials, they are very different. The hearing is more akin to a job interview. That is, no one is being accused of anything. It is simply, is the candidate politically acceptable to the office he was nominated to.

Second: The role of the committee is to promote the politics of the party in power. In practical terms, it is mostly a rubber stamp to the president's will. I say practical terms because that is what history has shown. The few times that the committee has not approved a nominee it was because the president made mistakes nominating someone who was DOA (Bork for example was already so politically tainted that one wonders what Reagan was thinking) or the president was not as politically savvy as the opposition party. I digress to the point of this paragraph. What is expected is for the committee is to score political points by: embarrassing the opposing party, showing solidarity with their own party, or even individuals demonstrating they are mavericks by doing their own thing. This reads as cynical but ask yourself, does anyone remember who the members of the committee were or the pubic hair on the coke can?

Finally: The expectation of a fair hearing of the victim makes no sense since the hearing is not a trial to determine if Justice Thomas is guilty of a crime. A comment in the answer displays the outrage of Justice Thomas testifying both before and after Ms. Hill. I have no idea where the outrage comes from. If I'm interviewing you for a job and your ex says you are a drunk, isn't it fair for me to call you back in and ask you: Are you a drunk?

Vice President Biden is not the most politically savvy individual but he is in the Major Leagues politically speaking. He definitely weighed the decision of allowing more witnesses and in the end decided that it would not promote the goal. That is the goal of embarrassing the opposition party. I don't know the inner details of his thinking, but it is possible he was right. Recent history has shown that parading additional individuals is likely to backfire.

Contrast what you have now: Ms. Anita Hill, the victim, can be martyred out even almost 20 years after the incident or whenever Justice Thomas does something that is not on the Democrat agenda. Now compare it to what may have been: Additional witnesses that may not pass the media anal exam and have skeletons in their closet and/or are activist. The moment you bring out Ms. Anita Hill, the victim, the opposition can reply with the association of "unclean" witnesses. Take Ms. Christine Ford and her witnesses. If that committee has stopped at Ms. Ford, she would be a victim that could be paraded whenever Justice Kavanaugh is in the news. Now, whenever Ms. Ford is mentioned, the article has to write that the witnesses did not collaborate her story.

The final explanation to the context is why are we talking about this now? Vice President Biden was the Vice President of a 2 term President who remains popular. Vice President Biden announces his intention to run and this story is dug up. It appears that the leadership of his party just wants him to go away.

Edit: In response to the comments: I don't think I was clear enough. The argument that Vice President Biden was unfair to Ms. Hill makes no sense. There is no record that the Vice President said anything mean or offensive to Ms. Hill personally. The Nomination hearing is not a discovery of crime nor did then Senator Biden have any law enforcement power to smite Justice Thomas or redress any complaint of Ms. Hill. That is not the right venue for redress or punishment no matter how many witnesses came forward and were listened to. Then Senator Biden was not a judge in the matter of the state vs. Justice Thomas. There is a path for that involving law enforcement and the department of Justice.

  • 2
    The last sentence seems unproven/unprovable based on the preceding information. Is there any evidence that the Democratic Party leadership specifically brought the story to press attention? If as you say Ms Hill's testimony is brought out every time Justice Thomas does something the Democrats don't like, surely even the most plodding political journalist would remember her in the context of Joe Biden's candidacy?
    – Jontia
    Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 12:50
  • 1
    In what sense was this serving the Democratic party narrative, or embarrassing the Republicans? Republicans were already on board with the nomination, which was a conservative jurist nominated by a Republican president. If Biden, a Democrat, wanted to embarrass the Republicans, why expedite a Republican nominee and viciously undercut Anita Hill? Your suppositions make no sense. Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 20:51
  • 2
    @zibadawatimmy, "viviously undercut Anita Hill?" implies that you think that to Biden, Anita was important as an individual. At the time she was not. She was there to say Justice Thomas is evil. This achieved, I don't think Biden thought of her anymore. You must admit that the true goal of embarrassment was achieved spectacularly. Here we are 20 years later, and Ms. Hill is still the victim of Justice Thomas. What I don't understand is why they are trying to hang this weight on Biden. It defeats the automatic association with Justice Thomas. Commented Apr 29, 2019 at 20:58

New York Magazine has written a nice refresher on this issue that might help people understand. I've quoted the relevant parts below, but it's worth reading the whole (short) article here http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/04/guide-joe-biden-anita-hill-controversy.html:

In front of the all-male, all-white Senate Judiciary Committee, Hill claimed that Thomas sexually harassed her in the early ’80s when they worked together at the Education Department and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.


As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, it fell on Biden to preside over the hearings. Critics of his performance tend to hone in on three things:

  • First, he did little to stop members of the committee from attacking Hill. ...
  • Second, Biden failed to call additional witnesses who could have corroborated Hill’s testimony. ... Hill, in 2014, said Biden declining to put the other witnesses in front of the committee was “a disservice to me” and “a disservice more importantly, to the public,” as allowing those women to testify would have “helped the public to understand sexual harassment. He failed to do that.”

  • Lastly, Biden’s critics say that his own questioning of Hill was unfair, blaming him for “setting an accusing, skeptical tone and losing control,” ... “I was shocked and dismayed that Joe Biden was asking questions that didn’t seem appropriate and was not in her corner as a Democrat,” Ogletree said. “The point is that he’s supposed to be neutral, but his questions to Anita Hill were as piercing as anyone’s.”

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