Joe Biden chairs US Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Biden was a long-time member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, which he chaired from 1987 until 1995 and on which he served as ranking minority member from 1981 until 1987 and again from 1995 until 1997.
In this capacity, he dealt with issues related to drug policy, crime prevention, and civil liberties.
While chairman, Biden presided over the two most contentious U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings in history, those for Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991. In the Bork hearings, Biden stated his opposition to Bork soon after the nomination, reversing an approval in an interview of a hypothetical Bork nomination he had made the previous year and angering conservatives who thought he could not conduct the hearings dispassionately. At the close, Biden won praise for conducting the proceedings fairly and with good humor and courage, as his 1988 presidential campaign collapsed in the middle of the hearings. Rejecting some of the less intellectually honest arguments that other Bork opponents were making, Biden framed his discussion around the belief that the U.S. Constitution provides rights to liberty and privacy that extend beyond those explicitly enumerated in the text, and that Bork's strong originalism was ideologically incompatible with that view. Bork's nomination was rejected in the committee by a 9–5 vote, and then rejected in the full Senate by a 58–42 margin.
In the Thomas hearings, Biden's questions on constitutional issues were often long and convoluted, sometimes such that Thomas forgot the question being asked. Thomas later wrote that despite earlier private assurances from the senator, Biden's questions had been akin to a beanball. The nomination came out of the committee without a recommendation, with Biden opposed. In part due to his own bad experiences in 1987 with his presidential campaign, Biden was reluctant to let personal matters enter into the hearings. Biden initially shared with committee, but not the public, Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges, on the grounds she was not yet willing to testify. After she did, Biden did not permit other witnesses to testify further on her behalf, such as Angela Wright (who made a similar charge) and experts on harassment. Biden said he was striving to preserve Thomas's right to privacy and the decency of the hearings. The nomination was approved by a 52–48 vote in the full Senate, with Biden again opposed. During and afterwards, Biden was strongly criticized by liberal legal groups and women's groups for having mishandled the hearings and having not done enough to support Hill. Biden subsequently sought out women to serve on the Judiciary Committee and emphasized women's issues in the committee's legislative agenda.
Biden was involved in crafting many federal crime laws. In 1984, he was Democratic floor manager for the successful passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act; civil libertarians praised him for modifying some of the Act's provisions, and it was his most important legislative accomplishment at that point in time.
As a Senator from Delaware for 36 years, Senator Biden established himself as leader on some of our nation's most important domestic and international challenges. As Chairman or Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee for 17 years, then-Senator Biden was widely recognized for his work on criminal justice issues including the landmark 1994 Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act.