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

Associated Press Published:

McLEAN, Va. -- Robert H. Bork, who stepped in to fire the Watergate prosecutor at Richard Nixon's behest in 1973 and whose failed 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court helped draw the modern boundaries of cultural fights over abortion, civil rights and other issues, has died. He was 85.

Robert H. Bork Jr. confirmed his father died Wednesday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va. Bork died from complications of heart ailments.

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

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 Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, even as it gave him national prominence.

Bork, known until his death as "Judge Bork," served a relatively short tenure on the bench. He was a 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.

Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan's second term. He was nominated 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 Bork's Senate 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 written statement Wednesday, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who voted to confirm 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," Hatch said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., summed up the opposition at the time by saying, "In Robert Bork's America there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women."

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

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, 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 heavy, rustic beard.

Stoic and stubborn throughout, 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. 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 Bork of borking Clinton nominees with nearly the zeal that some liberal commentators had pursued him.

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 Bork in the solicitor general's office. "He was not well treated, and partly as a result of that he did become more conservative."

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Sherman contributed from Washington.

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