WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Robert Bork, an American symbol of conservative judicial activism who played pivotal roles in Washington dramas around the Supreme Court and Watergate and whose name became a verb, died on Wednesday at age 85.
Bork died in a northern Virginia hospital where he had been treated for an infection, said Leonard Leo, executive vice-president of the conservative Federalist Society.
Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork was rejected by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate over his conservative judicial philosophy. He became a potent symbol to conservatives.
“To bork” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002 with the definition, “To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, especially in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way.”
“My name became a verb,” Bork told CNN in 2005. “And I regard that as one form of immortality.”
Bork was already known to Americans as a figure in the Watergate scandal - the man who carried out Richard Nixon’s order to fire the special prosecutor in 1973’s “Saturday Night Massacre” - when he was nominated to the Supreme Court.
Within 45 minutes of his nomination on July 1, 1987, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy took to the Senate floor to denounce him as a man who wanted to outlaw abortion, ban the teaching of evolution and revive racial segregation. Bork said not a line of the speech was accurate.
After a fierce confirmation fight, the Senate in October rejected Bork 58-42, the largest margin of defeat for any Supreme Court nominee and a big loss for Reagan.
Bork’s judicial conservatism, and especially fears he might vote to overturn abortion rights, led liberal, civil rights and feminist groups to join ranks against him.
They charged that the burly, goateed Bork, then a federal judge, held views too extreme for the highest court. They warned he might cast the decisive vote to overturn the court’s 1973 abortion rights decision and endanger anti-segregation rulings of the 1950s and 1960S, despite Bork’s assurances he would not disturb “settled law.”
His supporters saw a political witch hunt. In later court fights, they used memories of the Bork hearings to rally their conservative supporters.
On Wednesday, supporters remembered him as a pioneer in a school of constitutional thinking devoted to the text and original meaning of the Constitution.
Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a statement released by the Federalist Society, called Bork one of the most influential legal scholars of the last 50 years.
Speaking to Reuters, Leo called Bork “one of our country’s fiercest and most articulate defenders of the Constitution as it was written.”
Like many other conservative justices - although more outspoken and in great recorded detail - Bork held that judges should interpret the law narrowly according to the “original intent” of the Constitution’s framers rather than making new law, which they called judicial activism.
At his confirmation hearings, Bork’s long record of writings and decisions as an active jurist made him vulnerable to attack. Among the most controversial were his views that the Constitution contained no generalized right to privacy nor unlimited authorization of free speech.
He did little to help himself in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, appearing cold and ideological.
But he fired back at critics, denying he wanted to “turn back the clock” and saying he was the victim of a liberal public relations campaign that distorted his record.
“The enormous amount of publicity and public relations that was going on was really unprecedented,” Bork said later.
He admitted the White House was caught by surprise by the intense opposition and echoed complaints by conservatives that Reagan should have done more to fight for the nomination. Justice Anthony Kennedy ended up being confirmed to the court in February 1988.
Bork’s defeat for confirmation to the Supreme Court was “the decisive moment in politicizing the process of judicial selection,” said Michael McConnell, a professor at Stanford Law School and a former federal judge who testified on Bork’s behalf at the 1987 hearings. “The scurrilous attacks on his views and his character set a new low for the process, and has poisoned the atmosphere for judicial confirmations ever since.”
Bork was bitter for years afterward and conservatives regarded him as a martyr to liberal activism and unreason.
Three months after the Senate quashed his nomination, Bork resigned as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after six years of service and went into private law, scholarship and commentary, supporting conservative causes for years to come.
One stint was as an “expert consultant” to television broadcasters covering the 1991 confirmation hearings for another controversial Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas.
Bork was also active in the background during the attempt the impeach President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s, lending his expertise and support to the impeachment process.
Before his nomination debacle, Bork had been best known for the brief role he had played as U.S. solicitor general at the Justice Department in a notorious 1973 Watergate episode.
He carried out Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was demanding the release of Oval Office tape recordings Nixon wanted kept secret.
Bork’s immediate superiors - Attorney General Elliott Richardson and his deputy - quit rather than fire Cox, stirring public outrage in what became known as “The Saturday Night Massacre.”
The backlash ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation, under threat of impeachment, in August 1974.
Bork later said he followed Nixon’s order to prevent “massive resignations” at the Justice Department and restore order there.
Bork remained outspoken on judicial nominations. In 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated White House counsel Harriet Miers to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Bork was a leader among conservatives in opposing Miers.
He called her a “disaster,” largely because of her lack of conservative credentials and constitutional-law experience. Miers pulled out and Bush nominated Samuel Alito, who was confirmed by the Senate in January 2006.
Robert Bork was born in Pittsburgh on March 1, 1927, and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1953. Before becoming a judge, he was a professor at Yale Law School, where he supported students who came together to form the Federalist Society, a legal movement that aimed to counter what they viewed as the intrusion of judges into people’s lives. He converted to Catholicism in 2003.
In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appointed Bork co-chair of his Judicial Advisory Committee, to advise the campaign on judicial nominations and legal policy questions.
Additional reporting by Terry Baynes and Joan Biskupic; Editing by Eddie Evans and Vicki Allen