Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Robert H. Bork, 85

His failed Supreme Court nomination inspired conservatives.

Judge Robert H. Bork is sworn in before a Senate committee at his 1987 confirmation hearing. Associated Press, file
Judge Robert H. Bork is sworn in before a Senate committee at his 1987 confirmation hearing. Associated Press, fileRead more

McLEAN, Va. - Robert H. Bork, 85, who stepped in to fire the Watergate prosecutor at Richard Nixon's behest and whose failed 1987 nomination to the Supreme Court helped draw the modern boundaries of cultural fights over abortion, civil rights and other issues, died Wednesday from heart complications at a hospital in Arlington, Va.

Brilliant, blunt and piercingly witty, Robert Heron Bork had a long career in the law that took him from respected academic to a totem of conservative grievance.

Along the way, Judge Bork was accused of being a partisan hatchet man for Nixon when, as the third-ranking official at the Justice Department, he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson had resigned rather than fire Cox. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was himself fired.

Judge Bork's drubbing during his Senate nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives.

The Senate experience embittered Judge Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, even as it gave him prominence as an author and long popularity on the conservative speaking circuit.

Conservative legal scholars lauded Judge Bork as an intellectual leader of the move toward originalism, which calls for the Constitution to be interpreted as it was envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Eugene Meyer, president of the Federalist Society, where Judge Bork cochaired the board of visitors, described him as "a truly kind and decent man" who helped mentor a generation of conservative law professors and practitioners.

Known before his Supreme Court nomination as one of the foremost national experts on antitrust law, Judge Bork became much more widely known as a conservative cultural critic in the years that followed.

His 1996 book, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, was an acid indictment of what Judge Bork viewed as the crumbling ethics of modern society and the morally bankrupt politics of the left.

Judge Bork served a relatively short tenure on the bench. He was a judge on the nation's most prestigious appellate panel, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, from 1982 until 1988, when he resigned in the wake of the bitter Supreme Court nomination fight.

Earlier, Judge Bork had been a private attorney, Yale Law School professor and a Republican political appointee.

At Yale, two of his constitutional law students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.

"I no longer say they were students," Judge Bork joked long afterward. "I say they were in the room."

Nixon named Judge Bork as solicitor general, the administration's advocate before the Supreme Court, in January 1973.

Judge Bork served as acting attorney general after Richardson's resignation, then returned to the solicitor general's job until 1977, far outlasting the Nixon administration.

Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Judge Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan's second term. He was nominated July 1, 1987, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell.

Nearly four months later the Senate voted 58-42 to defeat him, after the first national political and lobbying offensive mounted against a judicial nominee.

It was the largest negative vote ever recorded for a Supreme Court nominee.