For decades, Judge Bork was a major architect of the conservative rebuttal to what he considered liberal judicial activism. He criticized civil rights legislation and rulings in cases involving the “one man, one vote” principle and the constitutional right to privacy.
His unrelenting calls for judicial restraint and his opposition to “imperialistic” liberal judges, who he said read their values into the Constitution, made him an iconic figure in conservative legal circles.
In his writings and in debates on legal doctrine, the burly, bearded, chain-smoking ex-Marine was sharply confrontational. But friends and enemies alike found him a man of great charm, compassion and intellect, with a wit so sharp a close friend once called it dangerous.
A 1987 Time magazine article reported that Judge Bork had a disarming presence, even with his political opponents. When one Justice Department official said that a decision would be made “over my dead body,” Judge Bork is said to have quipped, “To some of us, that sounded like the scenic route.”
A Supreme Court war
Judge Bork was passed over for an opening on the Supreme Court in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia, who was confirmed 98 to 0 by the Republican-controlled Senate.
After the retirement of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in 1987, liberals feared that Reagan might appoint a judge who would tilt the court toward the right. Judge Bork’s nomination went to a Senate controlled by Democrats, with then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The White House tried to position Judge Bork as a mainstream conservative, and columnist George Will declared him “the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter” in 1939.
But liberals vowed to defeat Judge Bork and waged an all-out campaign, which included TV commercials featuring actor Gregory Peck, to portray him as an unreconstructed extremist. In five days of extensive hearings before the committee, Judge Bork’s detractors pointed to his earlier writings, in which he criticized Roe v. Wade — the high court’s assertion of a constitutional right to privacy that extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion — affirmative action and aspects of several civil rights laws.
“Robert Bork’s America,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) declared on the upper chamber’s floor, “is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”