Robert Bork, whose failed Supreme Court nomination made history, dies

MCLEAN, Va. (AP) — Robert H. Bork, who stepped in to fire the Watergate prosecutor at Richard Nixon’s behest and whose failed 1987 nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court helped draw the modern boundaries of cultural fights over abortion, civil rights and other issues, has died. He was 85.

Son Robert H. Bork Jr. confirmed that his father died Wednesday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington. The son said Judge Bork died from complications of heart ailments.

Brilliant, blunt, and piercingly witty, Robert HeronBork had a long career in the law that took him from respected academic to a totem of conservative grievance.

Along the way, Judge Bork was accused of being a partisan hatchet man for Nixon when, as the third-ranking official at the Justice Department, he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than fire Cox. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.

Judge Bork’s drubbing during his Senate nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives.

The Senate experience embittered Judge Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, even as it gave him prominence as an author and long popularity on the conservative speaking circuit.

RobertBork was a giant, a brilliant and fearless legal scholar, and a gentleman whose incredible wit and erudition made him a wonderful Hudson colleague,” said Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Hudson Institute, a Washington think tank at which Judge Bork was a distinguished fellow.

Conservative legal scholars lauded Judge Bork as an intellectual leader of the move toward originalism, which calls for the Constitution to be interpreted as it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Eugene Meyer, president of The Federalist Society, where Judge Bork co-chaired the Board of Visitors, described Judge Bork as “a truly kind and decent man” who helped mentor a generation of conservative law professors and practitioners.

Known before his Supreme Court nomination as one of the foremost national experts on antitrust law, Judge Bork became much more widely known as a conservative cultural critic in the years that followed.

His 1996 book, “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline,” was an acid indictment of what Judge Bork viewed as the crumbling ethics of modern society and the morally bankrupt politics of the left.

“Opportunities for teen-agers to engage in sex are … more frequent than previously; much of it takes place in homes that are now empty because the mothers are working,” Judge Bork wrote then. “The modern liberal devotion to sex education is an ideological commitment rather than a policy of prudence.”

Judge Bork served a relatively short tenure on the bench. He was a federal judge on the nation’s most prestigious appellate panel, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, from 1982 until 1988, when he resigned in the wake of the bitter Supreme Court nomination fight.

Earlier, Judge Bork was a private attorney, Yale Law School professor and Republican political appointee.

At Yale, two of his constitutional law students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.

“I no longer say they were students,” Judge Bork joked long afterward. “I say they were in the room.”

Nixon named Judge Bork as solicitor general, the administration’s advocate before the Supreme Court, in January 1973.

Judge Bork served as acting attorney general after Richardson’s resignation, then returned to the solicitor general’s job until 1977, far outlasting the Nixon administration.

Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Judge Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. He was nominated on July 1, 1987, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell.

Nearly four months later, the Senate voted 58-42 to defeat him, after the first national political and lobbying offensive mounted against a judicial nominee.

It was the largest negative vote ever recorded for a Supreme Court nominee.

Reagan and Judge Bork’sSenate backers called him eminently qualified — a brilliant judge who had managed to write nearly a quarter of his court’s majority rulings in just five years on the bench, without once being overturned by the Supreme Court.

In a statement Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, who voted to confirm Judge Bork, called him “a true lion of the law.”

“After many years in public service, Judge Bork thankfully remained a teacher and educated countless students of the law about what it means to take the Constitution seriously. He was a dear friend who deserved to be on the Supreme Court,” Mr. Hatch said.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, summed up the opposition at the time by saying, “In RobertBork’s America there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women.”

Critics also called Judge Bork a free-speech censor and a danger to the principle of separation of church and state.

Judge Bork’s opponents used his prolific writings against him, and some called him a hypocrite when he seemed to waffle on previous strongly worded positions.

Despite a reputation for personal charm, Judge Bork did not play well on television. He answered questions in a seemingly bloodless, academic style, and he cut a severe figure, with hooded eyes and a heavy, rustic beard.

Stoic and stubborn throughout, Judge Bork refused to withdraw when his defeat seemed assured.

The fight has defined every high-profile judicial nomination since and largely established the opposing roles of vocal and well-funded interest groups in Senate nomination fights. Judge Bork would say later that the ferocity of the fight took him and the Reagan White House by surprise, and he rebuked the administration for not doing more to salvage his nomination.

The process begat a verb, “to bork,” meaning vilification of a nominee on ideological grounds. In later years, some accused Judge Bork of borking Clinton nominees with nearly the zeal that some liberal commentators had pursued him.

Judge Bork denied any animus and said he was happy commenting, writing and making money outside government. Even friends did not entirely believe that.

“He was very embittered by the experience,” said lawyer Andrew Frey, a longtime friend who worked for Judge Bork in the solicitor general’s office. “He was not well treated, and partly as a result of that, he did become more conservative.”

Mr. Sherman contributed to this article from Washington.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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