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Robert H. Bork

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Rejection for high court set tone for later fights

McLEAN, Va. Robert H. Bork, 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, has died. He was 85.

Bork died Wednesday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., from heart ailments.

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

Bork was accused of being a partisan hatchet man for President Richard M. 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.

Bork's drubbing during his Senate nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives. The experience embittered Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions.

Conservative legal scholars lauded 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. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia called his former appeals court colleague "one of the most influential legal scholars of the past 50 years."

Bork was a judge on 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, 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," Bork joked long afterward. "I say they were in the room."

Nixon named Bork as solicitor general in 1973, and he served until 1977.

Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan's second term, when 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.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., summed up the opposition at the time by saying, "In Robert Bork's America, there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women."

Critics also called Bork a free-speech censor and a danger to the principle of separation of church and state.

The fight has defined every high-profile judicial nomination since, and largely established the opposing roles of vocal and well-funded interest groups in Senate nomination fights.

The process begat a verb, "to bork," meaning vilification of a nominee on ideological grounds.

Published in The Record on Dec. 20, 2012
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