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Robert Bork, judge defeated in Supreme Court war, dies at 85

By Bloomberg News

This article was published December 19, 2012 at 9:11 a.m.


U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill, in this Sept. 16, 1987, file photo.

— Robert Bork, the U.S. judge and legal scholar whose nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan set off a battle for the judiciary that lived on long after the U.S. Senate rejected him, has died. He was 85.

He died this morning at Virginia Medical Center in Arlington, Va., said his son, Robert Jr. The cause was heart disease.

Bork’s defeat in the Senate by a roll call of 58 to 42 — the most votes ever against a Supreme Court nominee — established new rules for how prospective justices get selected and vetted. The word “borking” entered the political lexicon, meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, trying to block candidates for public office “by systematically defaming or vilifying them.”

“My name became a verb,” Bork told CNN in 2005, “and I regard that as one form of immortality.”

In nationally televised hearings, the Senate Judiciary Committee delved into Bork’s ideology, not just his legal qualifications or competence. His past commentary on hot-button issues became fodder for his interrogators, establishing that long paper trails can be liabilities for judicial nominees.

Battle lines formed swiftly after Reagan, on July 1, 1987, announced his selection of Bork, a judge on the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, to succeed Lewis F. Powell Jr., who was retiring.

Before the confirmation hearings even began, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the Judiciary Committee chairman who was then seeking the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, declared that he would lead the fight against Bork.

“I don’t have an open mind,” said Biden, the future vice president. “The reason I don’t is that I know this man.”

In a 1963 article for New Republic magazine, Bork had criticized civil-rights legislation that barred restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations from discriminating on the basis of race. While the “ugliness” of racism was clear, he wrote, “having the state coerce you into more righteous paths” is “a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.”

On abortion, he had testified at a 1981 Senate hearing that Roe v. Wade was “an unconstitutional decision, a serious and wholly unjustifiable judicial usurpation of state legislative authority.” He also had criticized the 1965 Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to privacy that, among other things, permitted married couples to purchase contraception.

Robert Heron Bork was born March 1, 1927, in Pittsburgh, the only child of Harry Bork, a purchasing agent for a steel firm, and the former Elizabeth Kunkle, a teacher.

He graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., in 1944. After two semesters at the University of Pittsburgh, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1945 and was in training when World War II ended.

His first wife, the former Claire Davidson, died in 1980 of cancer. They had three children, Charles, Ellen and Robert Jr. In 1982, Bork married the former Mary Ellen Pohl.


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