December 20, 2012 in Nation/World

Bork, ex-Supreme Court nominee, dies

Conservative pick of Reagan faced hostile hearings with views
David G. Savage McClatchy-Tribune
Associated Press photo

Robert Bork testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1987.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Robert Bork, the conservative legal champion whose bitter defeat for a Supreme Court seat in 1987 politicized the confirmation process and changed the court’s direction for decades, died Wednesday. He was 85.

The former Yale law professor and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit died at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., from complications of heart disease.

A revered figure on the right, Bork inspired a generation of conservatives with his critiques of the liberal-dominated high court in the 1960s and ’70s. In speeches, law reviews and op-ed articles, Bork argued that the liberal justices were abusing their power and remaking American life by ending prayers in public schools, extending new rights to criminals, ordering crosstown busing for desegregation and striking down laws on birth control, abortion and the death penalty. Bork said the Constitution, as originally written, left these matters to the wishes of the majority.

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, Bork’s name rose to the top of the list of potential court nominees. Reagan aspired to transform the Supreme Court, and Bork, then teaching law at Yale, was offered a seat on the Court of Appeals in Washington. It was seen as a stepping stone to the high court.

Bork’s time finally came in the summer of 1987 when Justice Lewis Powell, the swing vote on the closely divided court, announced his retirement. By then, however, the Democrats had taken control of the Senate, and Reagan had been weakened by the Iran-Contra scandal.

On July 1, 1987, Reagan introduced the burly, bearded Judge Bork as his nominee, but within an hour the president’s words were drowned out by a fierce attack from Capitol Hill led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

When Bork made his case before the Senate Judiciary Committee, he faced a hostile majority of Democrats, including its new chairman, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. Because of his long “paper trail,” Bork had no choice but to try to explain his views. He did so, at length, but he did not win over many converts.

When the hearings ended, the Reagan White House knew Bork could not be confirmed. But the judge refused to withdraw, and the Senate rejected his nomination on a 58-42 vote.

Court nominees after Bork refused to follow his tack of seeking to explain his views in answer to questions from senators, instead choosing to duck them.

Bork’s defeat also had a profound and lasting impact on the Supreme Court itself. Had Bork won confirmation, the court’s conservative bloc, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, would have had a majority to overturn Roe vs. Wade as well as the strict ban on school-sponsored prayers and invocations. Instead, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Reagan nominee who eventually filled Powell’s seat, cast a deciding vote in 1992 to preserve the right to abortion and the ban on school prayers.

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