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Remembering Robert Bork: Law-and-Order Conservative, Supreme Court Nominee Judge

December 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Federal judge and former solicitor general Robert H. Bork died at age 85 of complications from heart disease. A World War II and Korean War veteran, he is best known for his failed nomination for a U.S. Supreme Court and his conviction that judges should interpret the Constitution with the founders' "original intent" in mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: an obituary.

We take a look at the man whose nomination to the Supreme Court in the 1980s dramatically changed that process.

KWAME HOLMAN: As a nationally known jurist and legal scholar, Robert Bork was a mainstay of conservative jurisprudence for more than half-a-century.

ROBERT BORK, former Supreme Court nominee: It is not a cliche to make a distinction between interpreting a document as law and making up new principles that are not in the Constitution.

KWAME HOLMAN: Those views fueled a titanic struggle over his 1987 nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court, a fight that became a seminal moment in altering the process for all future nominees.

Bork had first gained notoriety years earlier as President Nixon’s solicitor general. On Nixon’s orders, he carried out the so-called Saturday night massacre in October 1973, firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had sought access to the White House tapes.

ROBERT BORK: The president said, “It is my expectation that the Department of Justice will continue with full vigor the investigations and prosecutions that had been entrusted to the Watergate special prosecution force.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert H. Bork was born in 1927, and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School. His economic libertarianism evolved into law-and-order conservatism during the upheaval of the 1960s.

In 1982, President Reagan named him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. There, he applied his conviction that the founders’ original intent in the Constitution didn’t include a right to privacy, abortion rights and some civil rights protections. And then came the fight of his life.

PRESIDENT RONALD REAGAN: And I today announce my intention to nominate United States Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bork’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings unfolded in September 1987, and heralded a historic struggle over the ideological composition of the federal courts.

ROBERT BORK: The judge’s responsibility is to discern how the framers’ values, defined in the context of the world they knew, apply in the world we know.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY, D-Mass.: In Robert Bork’s America, there is no room at the inn for blacks, and no place in the Constitution for women. And, in our America, there should be no seat on the Supreme Court for Robert Bork.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH, R-Utah: It is hard to understand why your nomination would generate controversy. The answer is found in one word, which is tragic in this judicial context, and that word is politics.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Bork refused to withdraw, and the Senate rejected his nomination 58-42, with six Republicans joining all but two Democrats in opposition.

Along the way, his very name was turned into an active verb, to Bork, which meant rejection based on political grounds. And it became a conservative rallying cry.

Afterward, the judge resigned his appeals court seat, and wrote books on what he saw as the moral decline of America, a subject he described on the NewsHour in 1996 with David Gergen.

DAVID GERGEN, NewsHour: When you titled your book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah,” you were intentionally drawing upon the poem of William Butler Yeats, “Second Coming,” those final lines, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born.”


DAVID GERGEN: Why do you think we’re heading toward Gomorrah, and not Bethlehem?


ROBERT BORK: Well, if present lines continue, where our culture continues to decline, and becomes increasingly vulgar, chaotic, and dangerous, it sounds more like Gomorrah than it does Bethlehem. Yeats’ poem was about a culture unraveling.

DAVID GERGEN: Right. Right. But yours is bleaker, in effect, than even Yeats.

ROBERT BORK: Well, maybe neck-and-neck.

KWAME HOLMAN: Robert Bork died this morning in Arlington, Va. He was 85 years old.