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Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and Sexual Harassment Decisions

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

The 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill sexual harassment claims produced sensational headlines and introduced sexual harassment into the national dialogue. The subject has now returned to the spotlight as October marks the 20th anniversary of the hearings.

While Americans became more conscious of sexual harassment claims in the wake of Justice Thomas's confirmation hearings, the first Supreme Court sexual harassment opinion, Meritor v. Vinson, was issued in 1986. In that case, the court found that sexual harassment was sex discrimination.

We're curious: Did Hill's sexual harassment claims against Justice Thomas affect his outlook in Supreme Court sexual harassment cases? Let's take a look at five of the sexual harassment claims to come before The Nine since 1991.

  • Burlington Industries v. Ellerth. An employee does not have to report harassment during employment, or prove career setbacks, to win a sexual harassment claim. Justices Thomas and Scalia dissented from the majority.
  • Faragher v. City of Boca Raton. An employer is vicariously liable for actionable discrimination caused by a supervisor, subject to an affirmative defense looking to the reasonableness of the employer’s conduct as well as that of victim. Justices Thomas and Scalia, again, dissented from the majority.
  • Oncale v. Sundowner. In a unanimous 1998 decision, the Court found that same-sex sexual harassment is sex discrimination.
  • Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District. School districts are not liable under Title IX for teacher-student sexual harassment, unless an employee with supervisory power over the offending employee actually knew of the abuse, had the power to end it, and failed to do so. Justice Thomas joined with the majority.
  • Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. A school board can be liable for damages in a student-on-student harassment case if a Title IX funding recipient acts with deliberate indifference to known acts of harassment in its programs or activities. To qualify for damages, the harassment must be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit. Justices Thomas, Kennedy, Scalia, and Rehnquist dissented.

Based on this limited survey of cases, it seems that Justice Thomas votes against plaintiffs in Supreme Court sexual harassment cases. Do you think this trend can be attributed to past personal experience, or is it merely an extension of ideology?

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