Two decades before being nominated as President Donald Trump’s Labor secretary, Eugene Scalia was at war with the lion of the Senate.
In 2001, Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Democratic chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, expressed skepticism of then-President George W. Bush’s decision to nominate Scalia as the Labor Department’s top legal official. In his opening statement at Scalia’s confirmation hearing, Kennedy criticized a 1998 essay in which Scalia said that a form of workplace sexual harassment known as quid pro quo “should be eliminated as a functional category of discrimination” under the law.
But Scalia had a formidable ally: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Supreme Court justice and close friend of fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, Eugene Scalia’s father. In a letter to the committee, Ginsburg said the younger Scalia’s essay was “written with refreshing clarity and style. It is informative, thought-provoking, and altogether a treat to read.”
“She thought very highly of him. Ruth appreciates good lawyering,” Bill Kilberg, a partner at Gibson Dunn who considers both Scalia and Ginsburg close friends, said in a phone interview.
Scalia’s strongly worded essay is among key pieces of his record set to resurface as he faces confirmation in a #MeToo world. His views aired in that hearing 18 years ago were just a small piece of a career-long commitment to conservative legal theory and a penchant for rhetorical flair that echoes his father — but also present a potential liability in the Senate, which is more discerning toward sexual harassment issues than it was two decades ago.
“The Senate’s changed dramatically in the years since that confirmation hearing occurred,” said Jim Manley, Kennedy’s press secretary at the time and later a senior strategist for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “What may not necessarily be a big deal then could be a big deal this time around. The people have changed and the issues have changed over the years, and he’s going to get some scrutiny on this.”
Scalia has represented a range of corporate clients in complaints related to workplace sexual harassment. As recently as 2015, he briefly worked for the global bank HSBC in a case involving current and former employees who accused a senior executive of repeated and unwanted sexual advances. Trump announced Scalia’s nomination last Thursday — a week after the ouster of Alex Acosta, who resigned amid scrutiny over his role in brokering a 2008 plea deal with wealthy sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, arrested in New Jersey earlier this month on new charges of sex trafficking.
Some liberal groups have already seized on Scalia’s prior writings, arguing they should disqualify him from serving in Trump’s cabinet. Allied Progress director Derek Martin said Scalia “may be a gifted legal mind, but his moral compass clearly needs some calibration.”
“The Senate should reject this nominee and demand a Labor secretary who will look out for all Americans in the workplace, not just the ones that sign the checks,” Martin said.
Scalia’s nomination was quickly celebrated by conservatives who see him as a warrior against regulations and a defender of business freedom.
“The confirmation process has gotten so silly that people will make something out of the most ridiculous things and attempt to block a nominee, but I will tell you that I know Gene Scalia would never tolerate sexual harassment in the workplace,” added Helgi Walker, a longtime colleague of Scalia’s at Gibson Dunn.
Scalia was narrowly approved by the Senate panel in 2001, despite the controversy stirred by his previous writings on sex discrimination. He was appointed to the position four months later during the Senate’s recess after Democrats, who controlled the upper chamber, refused to hold a confirmation vote.
The 7,000-word opinion piece, which Scalia published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, a common resource for conservative legal scholarship, was cited by the Supreme Court in Burlington Industries v. Ellerth, a case that sought to clarify the legal exposure companies face amid instances of sexual harassment. The decision came a little over a year after the justices decided Clinton v. Jones, another landmark case involving former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones’ sexual harassment claim against then-President Bill Clinton.
In the essay, Scalia does not endorse leniency for harassers. But he does argue that quid pro quo harassment, the illegal practice of soliciting sexual favors in return for professional advancement, shouldn’t be distinguished from generalized harassment in the workplace.
“His point was only that employers should be liable and you don’t need a new doctrine to make it liable,” Kilberg said.
Scalia declined to comment on the record. White House spokesperson Judd Deere said his “past experience in the federal government … makes him the right choice to lead the [Labor] department.”
“Eugene Scalia is one of the most experienced and respected labor and employment lawyers in the country, which is why President Trump has expressed his intent to nominate him,” Deere added.
Still, many of the passages in Scalia’s essay — though part of a larger and more complex legal argument — are likely to draw criticism from opponents.
“Saying ‘You’re an incompetent stupid female bitch’ a single time is not actionable environmental harassment,” Scalia wrote in one of his most emphatic lines. “Why should suit lie for saying ‘I don’t have time for you right now, Kim, unless you tell me what you’re wearing,’ a statement that Judge Flaum found to be a quid pro quo proposition in his Jansen opinion?”
Kennedy and his Democratic colleagues accused Scalia of arguing that employers should not be liable when executives or supervisors promise perks and promotions in exchange for sexual favors, or when they threaten adverse employment actions if a subordinate declines to engage in sexual activity.
“[Scalia] has said that employers should not be strictly liable in sexual harassment cases unless they expressly endorse the conduct of the harasser,” Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in his opening statement, according to a transcript of the confirmation hearing. (Kennedy died in 2009.)
To combat the onslaught of criticism from their Democratic colleagues, the panel’s Republican members frequently referred back to Ginsburg’s letter.
“I do not think she would have written that if she thought you were off the world somewhere in your views on that,” then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of Ginsburg, whom he referred to as “the most ardent defender of women’s rights on the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Scalia ultimately overcame the controversy in 2001 and was approved by the Senate panel 11-10, with Vermont independent Jim Jeffords casting the deciding vote.
When Scalia started his new job, he boasted the essay as one of his top legal writings on the Labor Department website.
Rebecca Rainey contributed to this report.
This article was originally published by Politico on July 12, 2019. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Ian Kullgren is a reporter on POLITICO’s employment and immigration team. Before joining POLITICO, he was a reporter for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. and was part of a team that covered a 41-day standoff with armed militants at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Their efforts earned the Associated Press Media Editors grand prize for news reporting in 2017. His real beat was politics, though, and he spent most his time at the state capitol covering the governor and state legislature.
About the Author: Gabby Orr is a White House reporter for POLITICO. She previously covered Donald Trump’s ascension to power for the Washington Examiner, from the day he announced his campaign to his transition to the White House. She spent one month in 2016 embedded in New Hampshire, where she covered several Republican candidates prior to the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. Orr has also worked for The New York Post and Fox News’ digital platform. Originally from Sonoma, Calif., she graduated from George Washington University in 2015 with a degree in political science.