DEMOCRACY IN ACTION
Clarence Thomas Groping Accuser Flew to D.C. to Ask Murkowski to Block Kavanaugh
Ms. Smith and her 10-year-old daughter went to Washington to try and sway their senators.
Among the women who flew to the nation's capital to lobby against the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh was an Anchorage attorney who gives a convincing account of being sexually assaulted by a sitting Supreme Court justice.
The justice was Clarence Thomas, who 27 years earlier had also called his Senate confirmation a “circus.”
Moira Smith's encounter with Justice Thomas occurred in 1999, six years after his confirmation, but she did not offer a public account for another 17 years, after the surfacing of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump brags about groping women at will. Smith felt compelled to go on Facebook to recount being groped by a man in a position of power.
“At the age of 24, I found out I’d be attending a dinner at my boss’s house with Justice Clarence Thomas. I was so incredibly excited to meet him, rough confirmation hearings notwithstanding. He was charming in many ways—giant, booming laugh, charismatic, approachable. But to my complete shock, he groped me while I was setting the table, suggesting I should ‘sit right next to him.’ When I feebly explained I’d been assigned to the other table, he groped again… ‘Are you sure?’ I said I was and proceeded to keep my distance.”
Reaction by the media and the public was muted by Smith's refusal to go on television lest she appear to be seeking attention for herself. She limited her interviews at the time to one with the National Law Journal, which spoke to several of her friends who confirmed that she had told them about the encounter in the immediate aftermath. She took a kind of private vow of silence.
“I had told my story,” she said on Friday. “I hoped never to have to speak about it again.”
Thomas denied the allegation and it faded from public consciousness, and Smith watched Trump go on to win despite similar allegations against him by more than a dozen women.
“I was stunned,” she later told The Daily Beast.
One result of the election was the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Smith assumed he would be confirmed with little fuss. She was stunned again when she first learned that a woman had accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school. The senate would be holding a hearing that was immediately compared to the hearing in which Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.
“Not again,” Smith remembers thinking.
Smith was among the millions who watched on television as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified.
“My sense was that she believed strongly that Judge Kavanaugh was the one who had assaulted her and I found her believable,” Smith later told the Daily Beast.
She spared herself from watching Trump mock Ford at a rally in Texas. But she witnessed from afar as many of the senators who supported Kavanagh dropped their pretense of treating Ford with the respect and understanding due a sex assault victim. She broke her personal vow of silence and wrote an account for a local newspaper of her encounter with Thomas.
In Alaska, a good many women had been angered by the recent kidnapping, rape and murder of a 10-year-old girl and by a case where a man received no jail time at all after being convicted of kidnapping a woman and choking her unconscious before sexually assaulting her. The rate of sexual assault in the state is recorded at more than double the national average. Sexual assaults on children are six times the national average.
On Sunday, the Alaska ACLU called Smith and asked her if she wanted to join a group of women headed to Washington to lobby against Kavanaugh. Smith asked her 10-year-old daughter, Maggie Metcalfe, if she wanted to come along.
“She said she didn't want to miss it,” Smith reports.
Smith contacted her daughter's teachers.
“I told them she needed homework stat because we were leaving on the red-eye M0nday night,” Smith told The Daily Beast.
In Washington, the group met with both their senators, both Republicans. Dan Sullivan was decent enough to them, but surprised nobody when he remained unwavering in his support of Kavanaugh.
They seemed to have more of a chance a chance when they met with Murkowski at 3:30 pm on Thursday. She listened to what everybody had to say, including Smith’s account of her encounter with Justice Thomas.
“I said my concern about the confirmation was bigger than me—that I was concerned it would cast a cloud over the institution of the Supreme Court,” she would recall.
The senator continued listening to the others and then returned to Smith.
“Was it you, Moira, who mentioned a cloud over the Supreme Court?” the senator asked by Smith’s recollection. “I don’t know if we got it wrong with Justice Thomas. I don’t think there's a cloud over the institution now. But, I’m concerned about the institution, too.”
Murkowski seemed still undecided when the women left around 4:15 pm. Smith and her comrades were in another senate office on Friday, when the cloture vote commenced. Murkowski voted not to send Kavanaugh's nomination to the the Senate floor.
“It’s very empowering,” Smith later said. ‘It’s very positive.”
Smith had wanted daughter to see democracy in action, and indeed she had.
”She looked up at me and said, ‘Mom, I think what you guys did really made a difference,’” Smith recalls.
Murkowski afterwards stepped outside the Senate chamber and spoke to a group of reporters.
“I did not come to a decision on this until walking onto the floor this morning,” she said.
Murkowski continued, calling Kavanaugh “a good man,” but making it clear she was indeed worried about a cloud over the judiciary.
“I believe we’re dealing with issues right now that are bigger than the nominee and how we ensure fairness and how our legislative and judicial branch can continue to be respected. This is what I have been wrestling with, and so I made the—took the very difficult vote that I did.”
In the afternoon, Smith and Maggie went down by the Jefferson Memorial. A photo shows them standing side by side, smiling even though the time was near when Senator Susan Collins of Maine had promised to announce whether she would be voting yea or nay when Kavanaugh’s confirmation came to the floor Saturday.
Smith was not optimistic and soon after proved right. Collins would be voting yeah, as would fellow waverers Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Kavanaugh would almost certainly be confirmed and join Thomas.
“I’m going to tell my daughter that there’s a lot to be sad about, but there’s also a lot to be hopeful,” Smith told The Daily Beast. “Because I believe the genie is out of the bottle and is going to be hard to put back in.”
She continued, “Women are mobilized politically like they've never been before.”
She added, “This is part of what democracy is about.”
She then said, “When you’re empowered, you win. This is important for her to learn and to understand that’s how to take back the power.”
For her homework, Maggie was supposed to keep a journal of her trip to Washington with the women from Alaska.
“After today, she’s got a lot to put in there,” Smith said.