Remembering a Great American; Robert Bork's Enduring Legacy

Article excerpt


When the Senate in 1987 defeated President Reagan's nomination of Robert H. Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court, it blocked the appointment of one of the most superbly qualified individuals ever advanced for the court. Judge Bork had been a Marine, a distinguished professor at two of the nation's finest law schools, a partner in a respected law firm, solicitor general of the United States and a judge on a leading federal appeals court. He was the father of three children, a widower remarried to a former nun. He was a widely acclaimed scholar, respected as a brilliant, penetrating thinker and a formidable advocate. In an obituary, The New York Times, one of his archest critics, acknowledged that no one questioned his integrity or intelligence.

None of that mattered to the 58 senators who blocked his appointment to the Supreme Court. He was savaged and then rejected in one of the sorriest chapters in American political history.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy launched the attack within an hour of the announcement of his nomination. In a vituperative, slanderous speech, Kennedy characterized Robert Bork's America as a cold, heartless, tyrannical society in which the races would be resegregated, women would be forced to resort to back-alley abortions, police would batter down doors in midnight raids and courthouse doors would be closed to millions of Americans.

Kennedy's opening salvo was succeeded by a bitter, partisan, televised spectacle in which Judge Bork was maligned, misinterpreted and mangled by Democratic senators. The public stoning changed forever the process by which prospective judges are considered by the Senate. The ugly political theater destroyed the reputation, character and future of one of America's most distinguished, honorable and accomplished jurists.

We know all too well the depths to which the Senate confirmation process has plunged. Aspirants to judicial posts keep their opinions to themselves and their scholarship bland. Presidents search for nominees with inscrutable or impenetrable - or nonexistent - records. Senate proceedings are marked by prolonged delays and filibusters. Hearings are consumed with hours of bloated speeches and endless probing for the slightest indiscretions, out-of-context utterances and exploitable weaknesses.

Judge Bork's defeat in this shameful process was a particularly sad chapter in American history. Not only did it permanently alter the method by which we examine the credentials of judges, but it transformed the judiciary itself. Today no presidential nominee, no matter what the position, is immune from that kind of character assassination. …