Monday 5 December 2016

Robert Bork

Published 23/12/2012 | 05:00

Judge whose nomination by Reagan to US Supreme Court marked escalation in culture wars between Right and Left

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Robert Bork, who died on Wednesday aged 85, was an American judge and Reagan Supreme Court nominee whose rejection by the Senate in 1987 marked a dramatic escalation in the culture wars between American liberals and conservatives and added a new word to the political lexicon.

The verb "to bork" is defined in the 2003 Oxford English Dictionary as "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, especially in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office". Supreme Court nominees had been rejected before, 27 times, but never with so much orchestrated fury. Usually they were found to be unqualified for the job or have skeletons in the closet. Neither accusation could be levelled at Bork.

At the time of his nomination Bork had spent five years as a judge on the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; he had served as solicitor general and acting attorney general during the Nixon administration. A former professor at Yale, he was widely respected as the leading authority on antitrust law and as a jurist of considerable intellectual rigour.

The case against him had been building ever since 1985, when Reagan's attorney general, Ed Meese, made a speech in which he argued that Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Bill of Rights had violated the intent of the Founding Fathers.

The speech inspired a generation of conservative lawyers campaigning to remain true to the principles of the American Constitution. It was Bork's status as the foremost judicial proponent of this philosophy that proved his undoing.

Democrats, then dominant in Congress, had begun preparing for the fight even before President Reagan announced Bork's nomination on July 1, 1987. By late June liberal senators had been told to form "a solid phalanx" of opposition to whomever Reagan nominated to replace Lewis Powell, a moderate Supreme Court judge who had announced his retirement.

The day before the hearings were due to begin, 1,200 people attended Bork's "funeral" in Philadelphia.

On October 23, 1987, and after only two days of Senate floor debate, there was no surprise when Bork's nomination was defeated by a vote of 58-42, the largest margin of any rejected Supreme Court nominee.

The decision marked the beginning of extreme partisanship in Supreme Court appointments which continues to this day.

Robert Heron Bork was born on March 1, 1927, in Pittsburgh. His father was a purchasing agent with a steel company and his mother a teacher.

After leaving school and a stint in the Marines guarding supply lines in China towards the end of the Second World War, Bork went up to the University of Chicago to read Law.

After several years in private practice in Chicago, in 1962 Bork joined the faculty at Yale Law School, where two of his students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham. In 1973 he was appointed solicitor general in the Nixon administration.

In 1952, Bork married Claire Davidson. After her death from cancer in 1980 he left Yale and returned to private practice. He became a judge in 1982 and stepped down from the bench after the defeat of his Supreme Court nomination.

He is survived by his second wife, Mary Ellen, a former nun whom he married in 1982, and by two sons and a daughter.

Sunday Independent

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