Linda Colley

To look at, Yale’s Law School resembles a small-scale version of the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, superimposed on a large mock-Tudor bowling alley. In fact, like most of the present-day Yale campus, it was built in the Thirties by poorly-paid Italian immigrants. Unlike the surrounding buildings, however, which are now beginning to show their real as distinct from their fake age, the Law School is in that pristine state of repair which betokens the support of serious money. For this is America’s top law school, the most intellectually prestigious, and the most powerful in terms of its close ties with Washington. This is the alma mater of Anita Hill, Professor of Law at the University of Oklahoma, and of her adversary, Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas, and of his Senate sponsor, John Danforth, and of his most effective champion on the Senate Judicial Committee, the fearsomely-named and viciously forensic Arlen Spector.

On 11 October, when Professor Hill began her televised allegations, this was the only part of the campus to show any life, as TV cameramen struggled to intercept stray law professors and gain some private dirt on their famous protégés. The rest of us were in front of our screens. Even the city’s umpteen pizza houses (New Haven claims the pizza as its own invention) were more than half-empty, cooks and waitresses huddling lazily around the resident TV set, gossiping and taking bets on who was lying the most. By now, though, the saga of Hill v. Thomas has been all but forgotten, except on the Law School’s Wall – a broad expanse of brickwork on the left-hand side of the entrance hall as you go in, on which Yale law students traditionally affix their candid verdicts on the issues of the day, a kind of scriptorial Speakers’ Corner. Ever since the confirmation of Judge Thomas, the Wall has been dominated by an angry notice pinned there by a feminist lawyers’ action group. In red letters it proclaims: ‘Clarence Thomas – MISOGYNY AND MEDIOCRITY’.

In reality and in retrospect, the most striking aspects of this extraordinary affair were rather different. There was, first and foremost, President Bush’s unpleasant determination to play fast and loose with the calibre and standing of the Supreme Court. I say this not because he allowed partisan considerations to sway him in his selection of Judge Thomas: that was only to be expected. Virtually every 20th-century President has tried to pack the Court in some way. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, stacked it with liberals back in the Thirties so as to further his New Deal. What was remarkable about Bush’s behaviour on this occasion was his blatantly cynical but entirely successful response to his limited freedom of political manoeuvre. Unlike many earlier Presidents, he has to work with a Senate controlled by the Opposition. This makes Supreme Court appointments difficult because the Constitution demands that they be made with ‘the advice and consent of the Senate’. Indeed, historically speaking, the Senate has often had more power in filling these positions than has the President himself.

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