The anticipation of meeting a U.S. Supreme Court justice for the first time turned to shock and distress for a young Truman Foundation scholar in 1999 when, she says, Justice Clarence Thomas grabbed and squeezed her on the buttocks several times at a dinner party.
On Oct. 7, a night dominated by the disclosure of Donald Trump’s audio-recorded boasts about grabbing women, Moira Smith posted on Facebook a memory of her encounter with Thomas. “He groped me while I was setting the table, suggesting I should sit ‘right next to him,’ ” Smith wrote. Smith, now vice president and general counsel to Enstar Natural Gas Co., in Alaska, was 23 at the time of the dinner party at the Falls Church, Virginia, home of her boss.
Smith’s claim came amid the outrage and ongoing national conversation about inappropriate sexual treatment of women by powerful men, male acquaintances and strangers. The disclosure of the Trump tape has spurred women in startling numbers to come forward publicly with old memories of unwanted touches.
Smith spoke with The National Law Journal/Law.com multiple times by email and phone after she revealed her allegation on Facebook. Her three former housemates during the spring and summer of 1999 each said in interviews they remembered Smith describing inappropriate contact by Thomas after she came home that night from the dinner or early the next morning. They also remembered their own shock and inability to advise her about how to respond. Another Truman scholar that summer, whom Smith would later marry and divorce, said in an interview he “definitely remembered” her sharing with him what had happened soon after the dinner party.
“I have an eight-year-old daughter. Before last weekend, I had subconsciously convinced myself she would never go through this and now I know she almost certainly will,” Smith said in an interview. “I am responsible to help minimize the risks and help her to understand what to do if she does, and to model the behavior that it’s not OK. It has changed my worldview as a mother.”
The National Law Journal/Law.com wrote Thomas requesting comment to the sequence of events that Smith alleged occurred at the dinner in 1999.
Thomas, in a statement through the Supreme Court’s spokeswoman, denied Smith’s allegations.
“This claim is preposterous and it never happened,” Thomas said.
Three other dinner guests—including Louis Blair, the then-head of the Truman Foundation—said they had no prior knowledge about any claim of untoward activity. Blair questioned whether Thomas ever would have been alone with a dinner guest.
Thomas, 68, on Oct. 23 marked his 25th year on the high court. There have been no similar public allegations of inappropriate conduct by Thomas since Anita Hill’s testimony during the justice’s 1991 Senate confirmation hearings. Hill claimed Thomas sexually harassed her verbally when she worked for him at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and subsequently when he was chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Thomas vigorously denied Hill’s allegations during the bitter confirmation hearings. “For almost a decade my responsibilities included enforcing the rights of victims of sexual harassment,” Thomas said then. “As a boss, as a friend, and as a human being I was proud that I have never had such an allegation leveled against me, even as I sought to promote women and minorities into nontraditional jobs.”
In her Facebook post, Smith, now 41 and a graduate of the University of California Berkeley School of Law, also publicly recounted two unrelated sexual assaults in her past: a college date rape three years before the Thomas dinner, and a few years afterwards, an acquaintance’s groping of her in a bar. Smith said she did not report the alleged college sexual assault to the authorities.
Smith’s Facebook post, which is no longer visible after she deactivated her page, did not reveal the details of her encounter with Thomas. This reporter reviewed Smith’s post, and the replies, before she made the page inactive. A source first notified the NLJ about Smith’s Facebook post.
In the series of interviews over two weeks, Smith told her story and why she decided to go public after so many years.
“We now know that many men in power take advantage of vulnerable women. That willingness by men in power to take advantage of vulnerable women relies on an unspoken pact that the women will not speak up about it,” Smith said in an interview. “Why? Because they are vulnerable. Because they are star-struck. Because they don’t want to be whiners. Because they worry about their career if they do speak out. But silence no longer feels defensible; it feels complicit.”
The Harry S. Truman Foundation was created by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Gerald Ford in January 1975. The new law allowed the foundation to award scholarships “to persons who demonstrate outstanding potential for and who plan to pursue a career in public service,” and to conduct a nationwide competition to select Truman scholars.
Roughly 60 awards are made each year to college juniors. A summer institute also brings about half of each year’s Truman scholars to Washington following their graduation from college, for anywhere from three months to two years and places them in positions with the federal government or national nonprofit organizations. Many scholars have gone on to hold high-ranking positions in government and business.
Smith, a native Alaskan, was a 1997 Truman scholar. After graduating from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in May 1998, she remained in D.C. and started working as a Truman Foundation resident scholar until August 1999.
She found housing that year in northwest Washington with three Wellesley College graduates, one of whom had been a Truman scholar in Smith’s class. The women became friends, each recalled in interviews, but with the passage of years, new families and large geographic distances between them, they have had infrequent contacts with each other.