“The Supreme Court is only as good as the people who are on it,” the lawyer and scholar tells Vox.
Anita Hill made history in 1991 when she launched a national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace during the live televised nomination hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Hill, a lawyer, scholar, professor, and Black woman, discussed in excruciating detail the harassment she suffered, allegedly at Thomas’s hands, when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and she advised him.
In a few hours of gripping testimony, Hill sat before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a group of 14 white men chaired by Joe Biden, then the Democratic senator from Delaware, who grilled her about her experiences with Thomas. Their line of questioning was infamously grueling, setting up Hill as an aggressor, rather than a victim. The Senate ultimately confirmed Thomas’s nomination.
Thirty years later, Hill — who has repeatedly said that testifying was an ethical responsibility — is still leading conversations about how gender-based violence permeates American society, and she still has plenty to say about the Supreme Court. She is hosting a new podcast, Getting Even with Anita Hill, and last fall, she released her latest book, Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence, in which she chronicles the movement to trust and support survivors.
With the recent confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court, I reached out to Hill for the latest episode of Vox Conversations, to discuss Jackson’s confirmation, Hill’s work as an activist, and the future of the Supreme Court. At the heart of Hill’s scholarship is her quest to bolster equality, whether she’s exploring how woman judges affect the justice system or the ethical obligations of American institutions such as the Supreme Court to improve life for all Americans.
Though Hill and I chatted before the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion was publicly released, we discussed the prospect that the Court would soon overrule its watershed Roe v. Wade decision, effectively making abortion inaccessible in much of the country. (I reached out to Hill for her thoughts on the leak and whether she still feels the same about the Court, but Vox did not receive a response by publication time.)
Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. There’s much more in the full podcast, so subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
I have a pretty big question for you. Do you still believe in the Supreme Court as an institution?
Oh, as an institution, I believe in the Supreme Court. But I also know from history alone, that the Supreme Court is only as good as the people who are on it. As a lawyer who has studied the law and the evolution of the law, it was the Supreme Court that gave us Dred Scott v. Sandford. That basically said that Black people had no rights that white people had any need to observe. It gave us Plessy v. Ferguson.
And so I know that the Supreme Court is not flawless, but I also know that it is my responsibility, and, I believe, the responsibility of everyone who has taken the bar and pledged an oath to the Constitution. It’s our responsibility to make sure that the Supreme Court is what it should be, that it has the integrity it should have, and that the people on it have that integrity. And that’s how I can restore my faith in the Court.
Do you think it’ll be a long time until your faith is fully there? Because we’re moving to a place where the Court will likely overturn Roe v. Wade in late June. We know that Justices [Sonia] Sotomayor, [Elena] Kagan, and now Brown Jackson are going to be part of a liberal minority that is writing dissents. How can we have faith when everything just looks so bleak?
Well, I think the only way that we can really have faith is to look at this in the long-term, because, as I said, I’ve read the history. And I know there was a Plessy v. Ferguson, but I also know that there was a Brown v. Board of Education and that in many ways, Brown overturned Plessy. I don’t say that the Court is infallible or that every decision that is made that I agree with, but if the Court has real integrity, it can change the law and change. And that’s done because people develop strategies to move the law closer to the Constitution.
So then, I’m wondering how the general public is supposed to feel. You cited how unpopular the Court is now, and I have some numbers from Gallup’s latest poll, from September 2021. Just 40 percent of Americans approve of the job that the Supreme Court is doing, and 53 percent disapprove. That’s a new low for the Court.
For folks who aren’t familiar with Plessy, and aren’t familiar with these other horrible decisions that the Supreme Court has made, but then eventually overturned through other rulings — how are they supposed to find hope in the Supreme Court? And I’ll also add: With the new information that’s been brought to light — that the spouse of a Supreme Court justice was found to be actively campaigning to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election — how can a common person be excited about the Supreme Court with this kind of information?
I’m not sure that they can be satisfied with where the Court is today. I think there are probably people who are very satisfied with it, but I know that there are others who are not. And I know that people are working on the strategies that will ultimately make for better decisions, just as they did back in the 1890s, when there was just so much to overcome in terms of what was wrong with the Supreme Court’s decisions.
It’s hard to have that long view of the Court. But I think that’s where we have to be right now. We’ve got what I call a super-majority of people on the Court who probably will continue to gut things like voting rights. Certainly, they will continue to undermine and chip away at Roe v. Wade, if not completely reverse it. That’s where we are right now, but I know from the past that that does not mean that’s where we have to always be. And I know that there are too many people who are fighting against that for it to hold forever. I just hope that not too much damage is done to our rights and protections and to the Constitution before we can get back on the right track.
Let me just say, too, that there are other ways that we can reverse some decisions. We can do it legislatively, at the federal level. So elections are important. We can do that at the state and local level to provide protections for people when the federal law fails us. We can think about whether we are living up to the laws of our land outside of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is not the only body that is in charge of making sure that the Constitution is enforced.
I know some lawmakers have pushed forward a couple of bills to institute a code of conduct for the Supreme Court, like making very specific guidelines for one determining when a justice should recuse themselves from a certain case, for example. Of course, these bills have stalled. So I’m wondering if the Supreme Court should just go ahead and do this [on their own] because they have the power to create something like this for themselves. Are you in favor of something like that?
I definitely think that it should happen. I think we cannot create for the Supreme Court this bubble from the reality of what conflicts mean. Conflicts mount, and they then undermine the integrity of our legal system. We are a country that observes the rule of law. And when our legal system is undermined — when open conflicts are allowed to be presented without any recourse or without any response — then what we have done is really taken away from our entire government. We’ve reached that level right now, where people are shaking their heads and they don’t know how to have confidence in the system because it is openly failing them right now.
I think we need to get a handle on that. There are plenty of people out there who have given their opinions about what Justice [John] Roberts should do as chief justice. But ultimately, it’s something that is going to have to be done in ways where there is real buy-in across different government bodies. So, I think the Senate needs to be involved. I think the House needs to be involved, as well as the judiciary.
I will say this, and I may sound naive, but I think that the American public really wants there to be a level playing field. They don’t want a court that appears on its face to be biased without recourse. They want courts to represent integrity and fairness and justice.