Judge Robert Bork: Rest in Peace

By Dave Andrusko

“Robert Bork died today at the age of 85, having had the distinction of becoming one of the most famous figures in the realm of public policy of the 20th century in part because of the unprecedented effort to destroy his reputation following his nomination for a seat on the Supreme Court in 1987. … Nothing like the campaign to deny Bork the Supreme Court had ever been seen before. It was a systematic campaign of personal destruction undertaken by liberal interest groups who had come to see the growing conservatism of the Reagan-era judiciary as an existential threat to them. Only a year earlier, Antonin Scalia had been affirmed by a 98-0 vote in the Senate, but in the interim, Democrats had taken hold of the body in the 1986 elections and the stage was set for a new era of personal destruction in the pursuit of a supposedly higher good.”
  –  John Podhoretz

This 1987 photo shows Judge Bork, center, being introduced to the Senate Judiciary Committee by then-former President Gerald Ford (left). On the right is Robert Dole, the Senate Minority Leader at the time, who, like Ford, strongly supported Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

“Unprecedented” is putting it mildly. It is no exaggeration—indeed even the Washington Post acknowledged in its obituary today that “The bare-knuckle tactics used by Democrats during Judge Bork’s nomination” [to the United States Supreme Court] would “become known as ‘borking.’”

But even that metaphor suggests that in attacking Judge Bork, Democrats, led famously by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, merely took off the gloves. In fact the battle over Bork’s nomination to replace Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. was the template for just how many below-the-belt shots Democrats would take when “reproductive rights” were challenged.

The key to defeating Bork was that Joe Biden, then chair of the Senate Committee, sat on the nomination, allowing advocacy groups plenty of time to gear up to mount an all-out offensive. Here’s what I wrote in the August 13, 1987 edition of National Right to Life News, in the middle of the assault on Bork.

“As I trust our past three issues illustrate, abortion advocates are petrified by the prospect of Judge Robert Bork taking a seat on the Supreme Court. As a tireless advocate of ‘intentionalism’  (a.k.a. judicial restraint and strict constructionism), Bork understandably looks askance at Roe, a decision that is to sound jurisprudence what McDonald’s is to haute cuisine. In their usual efficient manner, the leading lights of the Abortion Establishment and their sympathizers in the prestige press have divvied up the assignment of defeating President Reagan’s choice. NOW and NARAL, for example, have assumed their customary pose of high hysteria. When their own Distant Early Warning line warned of an impending Bork nomination, rhetorically, they launched a preemptive nuclear strike. Others, however, such as the Washington Post, knowing the battle was going to stretch out at least several months, are more patient and are fighting Bork with conventional weaponry… To the Post, overturning Roe and returning the abort ion issue to the 50 states is the equivalent of carelessly moving a patient whose stitches have not yet healed. Leave Roe in place (that is, maintain abortion on demand throughout pregnancy throughout the land), and, the Post says, all signs are the wounds caused by the political debate over Roe will mend. Move the decision back to the people’s representatives, they suggest, and, at best the ‘patient’ will take longer to heal, at worse, his wounds will burst wide open.”

[I then critiqued this nonsense.]

And boy, did it get ugly. The Post quotes Kennedy’s most famous mud-slinging, thrown during Bork’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. I remember Kennedy’s face like it happened yesterday. With his rhetorical throttle wide open, Kennedy’s attack blended hate and hyperbole.

“Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.”

That none of this was true, of course, made no difference. Kennedy had set the tenor of the assault which was to result in Bork’s nomination barely making it through the committee but defeated in the full Senate, 58-42. This was exactly the game plan to defeat Clarence Thomas in 1991, but Thomas prevailed in a setting in which the attacks on him were even more vicious and more personal.

Our sympathies and prayers go out to Judge Bork’s family and his many friends.

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