A liberal panel led by MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews injected sexism
into the Kagan confirmation hearings on Tuesday morning, suggesting
that Republican senators should curtail the tenacity of their
questioning because the Supreme Court nominee happens to be a woman.Invoking
the Clarence Thomas hearings, which focused on the testimony of Anita
Hill, who accused Thomas of making inappropriate sexual comments,
Matthews asked, "Am I wrong in hearing flashes here of the Anita Hill
testimony way back when in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings?"
Despite the absence of a sexual scandal, Matthews persisted with the bizarre analogy: "Are we past the sensitivity about a male member of the Senate grilling a female?" The Hardball host failed to clarify exactly who in 2010 is sensitive about male senators posing tough but legitimate questions to a woman nominated to the nation's highest court. "I don't think we are, Chris. I don't think we are," answered Sherrilyn Ifill, a law professor who teaches a seminar on "Reparations, Reconciliation, and Restorative Justice," who appeared eager to respond to Matthews's condescending question.
Continuing to patronize female viewers who don't believe that men and women should be treated differently in congressional hearings, Matthews asked Ifill, a woman, to flesh out the "rules of engagement" for handling female nominees."So male-female interrogation has to be done more, what would you say?" probed Matthews. "Give me the verb [sic]?"
"I think it has to be done with care, with care, with care," explained Ifill. "We saw it last summer with the Sotomayor hearings where both race and gender were at play. I think some of the most uncomfortable moments that many of us experienced was when some of the Republican senators crossed that line."
Like Matthews, the University of Maryland law professor failed to elucidate who specifically felt uncomfortable with Republican senators' questions during the Sotomayor hearings.
MSNBC anchor Andrea Mitchell echoed Ifill's sentiment on handling female nominees "with care," proclaiming, "The Senate Judiciary Committee is being very careful, with the exception perhaps of Jeff Sessions in his opening comments yesterday, in his opening statement. They're being very careful about a female nominee." David Corn, Washington bureau chief of the left-wing magazine Mother Jones, was the only panelist to duck Matthews's sexist questions. "I'm not weighing in on this one," he joked.
The following exchange was aired during MSNBC's June 29th live coverage of the Kagan hearings:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Let's bring in our panel right now on the Supreme Court confirmation hearing. NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, Susan Page, USA Today Washington Bureau Chief, David Corn, Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones, he's also a blogger on PoliticsDaily.com, and Sherrilyn Ifill, who's a professor of law at the University of Maryland Law School. Let's go around the panel in that order, your thoughts about this whole topic here is so hot in terms of partisan politics. Traditionally the Republican Party does not like any restraint on spending, the Democrats like to see restraints because they've always believed that, somehow, the other party has an advantage in money. Andrea?
ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent: This was the case that she lost before the Supreme Court, and so this is positioning by both sides. She clearly has a very good handle on the details of this case, but she was on the losing end of this argument and there's no way that Orrin Hatch and other would ever agree.
MATTHEWS: The "Hillary" movie was a very tough partisan movie put out for general commercial distribution and it was perceived to be a political document by the Democrats.
MITCHELL: It was perceived to be a political document and that was the argument, that it should not be permitted.
MATTHEWS: That it could not be financed by corporate purposes.
MITCHELL: By corporate purposes.
MATTHEWS: Right, David?
DAVID CORN, Mother Jones Washington Bureau Chief: But as we know, the 5-6 justices on the Supreme Court took this case and they expanded it even more so which is what got President Obama and other people riled up and they took a bigger swing at the McCain-Feingold bill, which had been passed by the Senate, which now Solicitor General Kagan is appearing before. And it was decried as judicial activism by people on the left and liberals and The New York Times. So I think Hatch's main political point here is to try and stop that narrative because I think it's really been absorbed that Citizens United went too far as a court decision.
MATTHEWS: And this came out in the president's State of the Union where he took a swipe at the Supreme Court with Samuel Alito and other justices there and they didn't like it.
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today Washington bureau chief: They didn't. You know, it's interesting since Kagan argued this case she feels pretty comfortable with it and you see, I think, a more free-flowing exchange between the Senator and the nominee there then we've seen on some others. Kagan famously called these hearings "vapid and hollow" in the past but we've seen some flashes of humor here this morning. And interestingly, Kagan said that she thought it would be a terrific idea to have TV cameras in the Supreme Court. If she gets confirmed that's an issue where she'll have some real issues with her colleagues.
MATTHEWS: Am I wrong in hearing flashes here of the Anita Hill testimony way back when in the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings? Orrin Hatch has to be very careful. Most voters are female. This is a female nominee, right? They must have that memory. That political memory and almost their intellectual muscle.
MITCHELL: They have learned the lesson. The Senate Judiciary Committee is being very careful, with the exception perhaps of Jeff Sessions in his opening comments yesterday, in his opening statement. They're being very careful about a female nominee. You're seeing her personality. She has done this before. She's been on the coaching side of previous nominees. And you're seeing that she's engaging with Orrin Hatch. She's very comfortable in the setting.
CORN: But she's not just female. She's probably smarter than any of them and she certainly knows the details better. So they really go at her at their own peril because I think she could twist them or turn them very quickly.
MATTHEWS: I think this is fascinating because I (inaudible) Dick Durbin, the senator from Illinois, the number two Democrat, Susan. And I said have we past the sort of the feminist era - I shouldn't call it the feminist era, the feminist reality. Are we past the sensitivity about a male member of the Senate grilling a female?
CORN: I'm not weighing in on this one.
IFILL: I don't think we are, Chris. I don't think we are.
MATTHEWS: So male-female interrogation has to be done more, what would you say? Give me the verb? Give me the adverb?
IFILL: I think it has to be done with care, with care, with care. We saw it last summer with the Sotomayor hearings where both race and gender were at play. I think some of the most uncomfortable moments that many of us experienced was when some of the Republican senators crossed that line. And so you still have to be careful.
MATTHEWS: Okay give me the ground rules, give me the rules of engagement, professor. Is there a different rule? Let me ask you this: obviously the question of a political role here is relevant because this nominee is a Democrat - has been a Democratic appointee - has voiced views on issues like "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a citizen. Where's the line? How hard can they get in the questioning?
IFILL: Well I find this quite astonishing because of course, you know, Justice Scalia was a political part of the Ford administration. Chief Justice Rehnquist came right from the Nixon administration into the Supreme Court. Clarence Thomas was so political that he had to promise to strip down like a runner. So this is not unprecedented that someone with a political background gets nominated to the Supreme Court and it's a little interesting to see the wide-eyed Republicans, you know, talking about her being too political. I think they can't push too far lest she just say, "I'll strip down like a runner, you know, like Clarence Thomas."
-Alex Fitzsimmons is a News Analysis intern at the Media Research Center. Click here  to follow him on Twitter.