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Sen. Hirono is asking William Barr — and every other nominee — about sexual misconduct

She’s setting a precedent that allegations of sexual harassment and assault matter.

Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on September 24, 2018
Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill on September 24, 2018.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

During attorney general nominee William Barr’s confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) asked Barr whether he had ever committed sexual misconduct.

“Since you became a legal adult, have you ever made unwanted requests for sexual favors or committed any verbal or physical harassment or assault of a sexual nature?” she asked.

“No,” said Barr.

“Have you ever faced discipline or entered into a settlement related to this kind of conduct?”

Again, Barr said he had not.

The exchange lasted less than a minute. But the questions have big implications.

While senators usually ask nominees specific questions about their record or background, Hirono has been asking the same two questions of nominees since January 2018, inspired by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. The questions turned out to be significant during then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings last fall: Kavanaugh answered no to both questions but was later accused of exposing himself to Deborah Ramirez when both were university students.

By asking all nominees of all genders, under oath, about sexual misconduct, Hirono is establishing a public record of their responses — anyone who lies to her is committing a federal crime. She’s also setting the precedent that allegations of sexual misconduct matter, and that the American people have a right to know whether the people appointed to some of the country’s highest offices have been accused of harassment or assault.

“Women have been putting up with this behavior since time immemorial,” she told Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick last year. “What I am trying to do is keep attention paid to this issue right now.”

Hirono has been asking every nominee about sexual misconduct for more than a year

In January 2018, Hirono announced that she would begin asking all judicial nominees who came before the Senate Judiciary Committee about their histories with sexual misconduct.

“As you know, women and men all across the country have been speaking up about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, and it started in Hollywood, but we know that it occurs in many other settings,” Hirono said during the confirmation hearing for Kurt Engelhardt, nominated to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. “As part of my responsibility as a member of this committee and to ensure the fitness of nominees for lifetime appointments to the federal bench, I would like to ask you two questions,” she said to Engelhardt.

Then she asked the same questions she asked Barr on Tuesday. Like Barr, Engelhardt answered no to both. He was confirmed.

Though her initial announcement pertained to judicial nominees, a spokesperson for Hirono told Vox that the senator has asked the same two questions of all nominees who have appeared before her for more than a year. As of August, HuffPost’s Jennifer Bendery calculated that she had asked the questions nearly 100 times.

The questions got more attention last fall, when Kavanaugh was accused of sexual misconduct. Before the accusations became public, he had answered no to Hirono’s two questions.

The first allegation to become public, made by Christine Blasey Ford, concerned an assault she says occurred when she and Kavanaugh were in high school, and he might not have been a legal adult. Soon after, however, Deborah Ramirez told the New Yorker that Kavanaugh had thrust his naked penis in her face without her consent when the two were undergraduates at Yale University — and he would have been 18.

That allegation raised questions about whether Kavanaugh had perjured himself in his answers to Hirono.

“This is another serious, credible, and disturbing allegation against Brett Kavanaugh,” the senator said of Ramirez’s accusation at the time. “It should be fully investigated.”

After a limited FBI investigation, Kavanaugh was confirmed and now sits on the Supreme Court.

But Hirono’s questions have import beyond any one nominee. As Lithwick wrote last year, “She is laying down a moral marker, putting the nominees, and her colleagues, and the country on notice that the only way to change the culture of harassment, including on the federal bench, is by asking the questions, getting on-the-record answers, and making it clear that this will not be swept back under the carpet.”

“I know that as we go along, we will have more effective ways to prevent and even, if need be, to punish this behavior,” Hirono told Lithwick. “But we are all part of the culture. So if we say it, we become aware, and we can become more aware as we develop processes and ways to fight back.”