Former federal judge Robert Bork has died at age 85. He became something of a symbol back in 1987 when the U.S. Senate denied him a place on the U.S. Supreme Court. Here’s how it went down, as I recall it.
President Reagan nominated Bork to the court. He was a brilliant legal scholar. On paper, he seemed eminently qualified to sit on the High Court. One little problem emerged, though. It seems that Bork’s writings on a whole array of social issues caused big-time grief with many senators, who were empowered by the Constitution to “advise and consent” to any federal judicial nomination. Many liberals – led by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy – expressed intense loathing, for example, of Bork’s views on abortion. They fought Bork tooth and nail.
In the end, Bork’s nomination was voted down. Indeed, the treatment he received from the Senate turned his name into a verb. To be “Borked,” according to conservatives, was to be treated unfairly by one’s critics. What’s more, the bitter tone of that fight has set the stage for many similar battles in subsequent Supreme Court nominations.
Bork’s nomination came to symbolize something about presidential appointments.
I tend to endorse presidential picks on a single principle: the prerogative that goes with holding the highest office in the land.
Reagan had been re-elected in 1984. He ran then as he did four years earlier, by pledging – among many things – to appoint conservative judges. And oh brother, he picked a doozy of a conservative in Bork.
Would this judge have been my choice? No. But it wasn’t my call to make.
He was qualified to serve on the Supreme Court, but he didn’t get the nod because the same Constitution that gives appointment power to the president also gives the Senate the authority to reject an appointment whenever it sees fit.
A Justice Bork could have turned out to be quite different than the federal judge whose lengthy paper trail became such an inviting target for critics. It’s happened before, with presidents picking justices who built legacies no one would have expected.
Robert Bork’s nomination and its result has provided a graphic lesson on the complexities of our system of government. Somehow, it works.