An extensive paper trail was far from the only factor in Mr. Bork’s defeat. Having recently regained control of the Senate, Democrats were determined to flex their muscles — and the Iran-contra scandal had sapped Reagan’s political power.
The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph Biden of Delaware, was running for the Democratic presidential nomination, further raising the political ante. Biden’s subsequent withdrawal from the race made him all the more eager to appear in command.
The fact that the justice Mr. Bork was supposed to replace, Lewis F. Powell Jr., had been the swing vote between the court’s liberal and conservative wings made the nomination seem especially momentous. The year before, there had been little debate when Justice William H. Rehnquist had been named to succeed Burger as chief justice, and Antonin Scalia to succeed Rehnquist. If Mr. Bork was more conservative than Rehnquist or Scalia, it was a matter of degree, not kind. Yet their nominations hadn’t threatened the balance of power on the court. Some observers even said Mr. Bork’s scruffy beard and the odd sound of his surname made him seem offputting, as did his sometimes prickly manner.
After the Judiciary Committee voted against Mr. Bork by a 9-5 margin, he refused a White House offer to withdraw his nomination. The final Senate vote was 58-42. US Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsburg was then nominated for the Powell seat, only to have the nomination withdrawn after it was learned he had smoked marijuana. The White House then proposed US Appeals Court Judge Anthony M. Kennedy, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
Robert Heron Bork was born on March 1, 1927, in Pittsburgh, the son of Harry P. Bork and Elizabeth (Kunkle) Bork.
“I was a student radical in high school and in college,” Mr. Bork said in a 1997 interview with Insight magazine. “I went to law school in order to become a labor-union lawyer and bring down the system.”
Mr. Bork credited the rigorous intellectual atmosphere of the University of Chicago, where he earned both his undergraduate and law degrees, and reading F.A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom” and Whittaker Chambers’s “Witness” for having “destroyed my daydreams about socialism,” as he once put it.
Mr. Bork served in the Marine Corps from 1945-46, and as a reserve was recalled to active duty from 1950-52. After spending several years in private practice in Chicago, he joined the faculty at Yale Law School in 1962. Named solicitor general in 1973, Mr. Bork was almost immediately embroiled in controversy. He drafted the Justice Department’s brief against Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who’d been accused of taking bribes while an elected official in Maryland. Richardson credited that brief with forcing Agnew to accept a plea bargain and not contest the charges against him.
Mr. Bork drew much more public attention with the Saturday Night Massacre. He later said he considered joining Richardson and Ruckelshaus in resigning. “I did not want to be perceived as a man who did the president’s bidding to save my job,” he said in a 1987 New York Times interview. But Richardson urged him to stay on to ensure departmental stability. In a 1987 Times interview, Richardson praised Mr. Bork “for standing up to Nixon” after the massacre “and telling him to appoint another special prosecutor.”
Mr. Bork returned to Yale in 1977. A year later, he published “The Antitrust Paradox,” which both anticipated and influenced the deregulation movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
After Mr. Bork’s wife, Claire (Davidson) Bork, died in 1980, he left academe and resumed practicing law. He became a judge in 1982. He stepped down from the bench a few months after the defeat of his Supreme Court nomination. “I liked judging very much,” Mr. Bork wrote in his 1990 best seller, “The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law.” “But I wanted engagement with larger ideas than the run of cases then brought before us.” He became John M. Olin scholar in legal studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Bork’s “Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline” (1996) was also a best seller. He published “Coercing Virtue: The Worldwide Rule of Judges” in 2003.
Mr. Bork married Mary Ellen Pohl in 1982.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.