“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 government …” –Senator Ted Kennedy
Hey, what’s a little hyperbole among friends? When Robert Bork, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, was nominated by Ronald Reagan for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, the liberal establishment, led by Senator Kennedy, was aghast. Bork was an “originalist,” meaning that he advocated deciding cases based on a strict interpretation of the original meaning of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which — according to Senator Kennedy and others — was tantamount to advocating a return to the days of the Founding Fathers in terms of social, racial and gender equality. As a result, the left wing of the Democratic Party geared up for a massive offensive against Bork’s nomination, taking to the airwaves and lecture circuit to denounce him as a right-wing extremist far out of touch with mainstream America.
Of particular concern, especially to pro-choice women’s groups, was Bork’s often stated belief that the Constitution contained no general right to privacy and therefore Roe v. Wade, which was based on such a right, was unconstitutional. But that wasn’t Bork’s only problem. As his hearings would show, unlike later Supreme Court nominees who kept their legal views close to the vest, Bork had a long paper trail of judicial opinions that could be scrutinized for every legal and political nuance. Thus did Democratic senators grill him unmercifully about past opinions, and his testy replies, which often seemed to question the intelligence of his interlocutors, made for great television.
But not great career advancement, and after an extremely partisan debate, the Senate rejected Bork’s nomination. The final vote, which occurred this week (Oct. 23) in 1987, was 58 – 42, mostly along party lines.
Bork’s defeat so embittered conservatives that they coined a new verb, “to bork,” the definition of which was “to destroy a judicial nominee through a concerted attack on his character, background and philosophy.”
Interestingly, the most famous use of that verb came four years later during hearings for another controversial, and conservative, Supreme Court nominee. When Florynce Kennedy of the National Organization for Women (NOW) was asked how NOW would respond to the nomination of Clarence Thomas, she replied, “We’re going to ‘bork’ him.”
NOW certainly tried to ‘bork’ Thomas — at his hearings a former co-worker, Anita Hill, appeared out of nowhere to accuse him of sexual harassment — but he managed to survive, gaining confirmation in another very close party line vote, 52-48.