It’s a mighty thin reed that Republican leaders hang onto when they selectively cite then-Sen. Joe Biden’s remarks from 24 years ago as evidence to deny any Obama appointee to the Supreme Court a fair hearing and a vote. President Obama is right in saying, “We all know senators say stuff all the time,” and the excerpt Mitch McConnell and the other Republican leaders cite to support their obstructionism is not what Biden was saying when he spoke at length on the Senate floor in late June 1992.
It was the end of the court’s term, a time when aging justices often hand down their resignations. There were retirement rumors about 83-year-old Justice Harry Blackmun. Biden, in his role as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wanted to discourage Blackmun from stepping down and the Bush White House from thinking it could confirm a replacement before the election now five months away.
There was no vacancy on the court, and Biden wanted to keep it that way. In just two weeks, the Republicans would hold their party convention with President George H.W. Bush running for re-election in a highly charged three-person race against Democrat Bill Clinton and Independent Ross Perot. In the Senate, hard feelings lingered from the previous October’s Anita Hill hearings, and Biden warned that if the administration tried to get one or the other justices to resign in order to create a vacancy, he wasn’t inclined to go along with that.
And if they did—and here’s the olive branch, which funny enough isn’t getting much air time as the old clip is replayed—he would consider confirmation of a nominee in the Kennedy mode, as in Justice Anthony Kennedy, a solid but conservative-leaning jurist who was confirmed unanimously in February 1988, Ronald Reagan’s last year in office. Biden didn’t in any way say or imply he wouldn’t be holding hearings, or that he would do what McConnell and the other Republicans on the Judiciary Committee are doing, which is sight unseen refusing to hold hearings or to even meet with the nominee.
It is a show of disrespect not only for Obama but also for the Constitution and the executive’s role to propose and the Senate’s to advise and consent. McConnell gleefully cited the cherry-picked Biden excerpt as proof of what would happen “if the shoe were on the other foot.” But if that were true, the GOP would at least go through the motions before regretfully finding the nominee is an extremist they can’t support. That would be rough politics as usual.
The bigger question: Will anyone nominated be out of the running for Hillary Clinton, if she’s the next president? Or will that person move to the front of the queue? Will Republicans feel compelled to go after that person with extra zeal? And given these unknowns, who would say yes to Obama?
Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, presiding over two of the most contentious nominations in history, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Bork’s “originalism,” in the mold of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, sparked strong opposition and his extensive writings gave critics plenty to work with. The assault was brutal, giving rise to the verb, to be “borked.” Biden won praise for challenging Bork on certain rights to privacy that he rejected because they weren’t enumerated in the Constitution. The full Senate rejected Bork 58-42, with six Republicans joining 52 Democrats to vote against him.
The Anita Hill hearings in October 1991 were not Biden’s finest hour, and his role chairing those hearings will be reprised in the HBO movie Confirmation, airing on April 11 and starring Kerry Washington as Hill, Wendell Pierce as Clarence Thomas, and Greg Kinnear as Biden.
Emotions are still raw even after 25 years, and the scuttlebutt in Washington is that Biden will not be pleased with his depiction in the film as far too deferential to Thomas.
That may surprise viewers today, but criticism then of Biden, as one disaffected liberal put it, was not that he was a partisan in-fighter, but that “he bent over backwards to grease the skids for the most unqualified successful Supreme Court nominee we have ever seen.”
People involved in the fight then and interviewed for this article did not want to be quoted by name. The hearings were brutal, with Thomas calling them “a high-tech lynching.” Women’s groups siding with Hill were convinced Thomas was lying and demanded Biden order lie-detector tests and subpoena records of X-rated films Bork had allegedly rented. They blamed Biden for not putting more pressure on Hill to come forward earlier.
The coziness of an all-male and all-white Judiciary panel grilling Hill, a prim college professor who had reluctantly come forward alleging sexual harassment by Thomas, set the stage for a political revolution. The following year, 1992, a record number of women sought political office and a record number won, dubbing it the “Year of the Woman.”
The HBO film will portray at least one witness against Thomas that Biden never called and that critics believe could have ended Thomas’s confirmation. Biden in his role as chairman told the woman the Republicans had dug up more stuff on her, and he described what she would face on national television if she came forward. She chose not to testify, and her statement is in the hearing record.
Confirmation will air at a potentially critical time in the current court fight, but whatever conclusions viewers draw, it should be underscored that Biden let the nominations of Bork and Thomas go forward even if he and his political party disagreed. They each got a vote, and Thomas is now in his 24th year on the court after being confirmed with a mere 52 votes in the Senate.