Robert Bork died this morning at the age of 85. A former Yale Law professor, he was one of the leading originalist thinkers of the last half century. However, the public will likely remember him for two controversies. He was US Solicitor General under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and was a key figure in the “Saturday Night Massacre” of 1973. President Ronald Reagan appointed Bork to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals in 1982. Reagan’s unsuccessful nomination of Bork to the Supreme Court provoked such a battle that “to bork” became a political verb.
On October 20, 1973, in the midst of Watergate, President Nixon ordered Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire independent counsel Archibald Cox. Richardson refused and resigned as Attorney General instead. Nixon then ordered Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus refused and resigned as Deputy Attorney General.
Bork was third ranking official at the Justice Department at the time and became Acting Attorney General. Bork then fired Cox. Within days, Bork named Leon Jaworski the new independent counsel. Jaworski would eventually subpoena Nixon’s White House tapes – including the Smoking Gun tape – an action that would lead to Nixon’s resignation.
Reagan appointed Bork to the DC Circuit Court of Appeals with little controversy and a smooth confirmation by the US Senate in 1982.
On July 1, 1987, Reagan nominated Bork to the Supreme Court. His nomination proved to be one of the most divisive in the modern era. Within 45 minutes of Bork’s nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) declared that Robert Bork’s America would, among other things, be a place where segregation, rogue police, and government censorship would run rampant. The Reagan White House would not respond to Kennedy’s attack for two and a half months.
Bork’s nomination and the battle over his confirmation was so noteworthy that the Bork nomination itself has its own lengthy Wikipedia article, where they describe the entire confirmation battle better than I could in this blog post.
On October 23, 1987, the US Senate voted 58-42 to reject Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. California’s US Senators split on the vote, with Alan Cranston (D) voting to reject Bork and Pete Wilson (R) voting to confirm Bork.
The Bork nomination process was so controversial that “to bork” became a verb used in the American political process.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “bork” as: “To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way.”
President Reagan then nominated DC Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who eventually withdrew after admitting that he had smoked marijuana with his students while a Harvard Law professor.
Reagan finally picked a nominee who went on to be confirmed 97-0: Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Anthony Kennedy-the pivotal swing vote on today’s Supreme Court.
Four months after his rejection for the Supreme Court, Bork resigned from the DC Circuit and then worked for a series of think tanks. His seat on the DC Circuit would eventually be filled by Clarence Thomas, who would be nominated by President George H.W. Bush for another seat on the Supreme Court in another contentious confirmation battle just four years later. During the Thomas confirmation battle, NOW leaders declared, “We’re going to bork him.” The US Senate confirmed Thomas 52-48.