Robert H. Bork, whose failed Supreme Court nomination in 1987 infuriated conservatives and politicized the confirmation process for the ensuing decades, died Wednesday at the age of 85.
The former Yale law professor and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit had a history of heart problems and had been in poor health for some time.
But Bork was a towering figure for an early generation of conservatives. In the 1960s and ‘70s, he argued that a liberal-dominated Supreme Court was abusing its power and remaking American life by ending prayers in public schools, by extending new rights to criminals, by ordering cross-town busing and by voiding the laws against abortion.
He was an influential legal advisor in the Nixon administration and served as a footnote to history in the Watergate scandal. When the embattled president ordered the firing of special counsel Archibald Cox, the attorney general and his deputy resigned in protest. Bork, who was in the No. 3 post as U.S. solicitor general, then carried out Nixon’s order.
But Bork’s biggest moment came during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. He left Yale and came to Washington when Reagan appointed him to the U.S. court of appeals in the District of Columbia. The job was seen as a steppingstone to the high court.
In 1986, Bork was passed over for a younger colleague when Reagan named Judge Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court. A year later, Bork’s turn came when Justice Lewis Powell, the swing vote on the closely divided court, announced his retirement.
Democrats, led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, launched an all-out attack on Bork’s nomination, saying he would set back the cause of civil rights, women’s rights and civil liberties.
The summer of 1987 saw campaign-style attacks on Bork’s reputation. In televised hearings, the bearded, heavy-set professor tried to explain his views, but he won few converts. The Senate defeated his nomination by a 58-42 vote.
In his place, Reagan eventually chose Judge Anthony Kennedy, who was confirmed unanimously. The switch proved to have lasting consequences. Kennedy cast decisive votes to uphold Roe vs. Wade and to preserve the ban on school-sponsored prayers.
Bork stepped down from the bench a year after his defeat, but wrote several books renewing his criticism of liberalism. In the past year, he served as a chairman of Mitt Romney’s advisory committee on the judiciary and the courts.