Most current Williams students probably don’t remember much about October 1991. However, for Professor Anita Hill of Brandeis University, that month was arguably one of the most formative times of her life. A law professor and former assistant to the now Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Hill brought charges of sexual harassment against Thomas in his judicial confirmation hearings in October 1991. Although Hill maintains her accusations of sexual harassment by Thomas to this day, he was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee and currently sits on the United States Supreme Court. Although the case did not prevent Thomas from gaining a seat on the Supreme Court, it did shed light on sexual harassment and led to significant changes in the laws and portrayals of the important issue.
Last Thursday, students from Williams, Bennington College, Southern Vermont College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts had the opportunity to hear Hill speak about the selection process of United States Supreme Court Justices and the Supreme Court’s role in defining civil rights and liberties. Her lecture, titled “Choosing America’s Better History,” was part of the annual Four College Issues Forum held at the Bennington Cultural Arts Center by Southern Vermont College.
Hill began her lecture with questions and thoughts about who President Obama will choose as the next Supreme Court Justice if given the opportunity. “If he gets a chance to appoint a Supreme Court justice, who will he choose? Will he choose a woman? A person of color? Will he select someone who is an environmentalist?” Hill asked.
She then spoke about the two separate but equally important considerations President Obama will have to take into account when choosing a justice: ideology and identity. Discussing the history of significant Supreme Court nominations, Hill argued that “a progressive view of rights has been a part of [American] history,” but that it has been swept under the rug by what are considered traditional or conservative values. She urged President Obama to choose from the “different history” he spoke of in his of inaugural address and choose a progressive candidate for the Supreme Court.
“There is a different history to choose from, and that is the history I hope we will be thinking about when we try to figure out who should be on the Supreme Court,” Hill said. “I believe we should choose equality and freedom as part of our history.”
Discussing the history of civil rights and liberties in the United States, Hill turned to the changes the country has faced in the last 100 years, noting the progressive decades of the 1960s and ’70s and the conservative backlash that has lasted from the ’80s until today. She spoke of the ebb and flow of the protection of rights that the United States has faced throughout its history and urged that the American public not forget that issues of rights and liberties are still paramount today. She discussed the ways the American public has been able to protect itself from confrontations that allow it to forget that discrimination and rights violations continue to exist.
“I can construct my day and much of my life to avoid racial or sexist confrontation,” Hill said. “I use privileges I have gained through my education, through my income, through my social status not to have to deal with issues of race.”
She stressed that the United States is not in a “post-rights era,” but rather that citizens have allowed themselves to become complacent about their rights. She argued that they cannot depend on the government, especially the Department of Justice and the Supreme Court, to protect their rights and pointed to the current investigation of the Department of Justice regarding the use of torture in the questioning of prisoners of war. She then turned to the lack of different perspectives on the Supreme Court and concluded her lecture by noting the lack of minority groups who because of their identities, would bring unique and important perspectives to the bench.
“A full range of perspectives is missing from the Supreme Court today,” Hill said. “I’m arguing not only that ideology matters, but I’m arguing that identity matters. But I’m not arguing it because we have some choices to make. I’m arguing it because a fair reading of the Constitution compels us to embrace rights and to pursue equality vigorously. It’s not where we were 100 years ago; it’s where we are today.”
Following the lecture, Hill took questions from the audience, which addressed topics ranging from gay rights and the defense of marriage act to the lack of women on the Supreme Court.