WASHINGTON — Robert Bork, the conservative jurist who fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the “Saturday Night Massacre" in 1973 and whose failed nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987 sparked an enduring political schism over judicial nominations, died early Wednesday at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., of complications from heart disease. He was 85.
The death was confirmed by Bork’s daughter-in-law, Diana Culp Bork.
For decades, Bork was a major architect of the conservative rebuttal to what he considered liberal judicial activism. He criticized civil rights legislation and rulings in cases involving the “one man, one vote" principle and the constitutional right to privacy.
His unrelenting calls for judicial restraint and his opposition to “imperialistic" liberal judges, who he said read their values into the Constitution, made him an iconic figure in conservative legal circles.
In his writings and in debates on legal doctrine, the burly, bearded, chain-smoking ex-Marine was sharply confrontational. But friends and enemies alike found him a man of great charm, compassion and intellect, with a wit so sharp a close friend once called it dangerous.
A 1987 Time magazine article reported that Bork had a disarming presence, even with his political opponents. When one Justice Department official said that a decision would be made “over my dead body," Bork is said to have quipped, “To some of us, that sounded like the scenic route."
Bork was passed over for an opening on the Supreme Court in 1986, when President Ronald Reagan nominated Antonin Scalia, who was confirmed 98 to 0 by the Republican-controlled Senate.
After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell in 1987, liberals feared that Reagan might appoint a judge who would tilt the court toward the right. Judge Bork’s nomination went to a Senate controlled by Democrats, with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
The White House tried to position Bork as a mainstream conservative, and conservative columnist George Will declared him “the most intellectually distinguished nominee since Felix Frankfurter" in 1939.
But liberals vowed to defeat Bork and waged an all-out campaign, which included television commercials featuring actor Gregory Peck, to portray him as an unreconstructed extremist. Among those who testified against Bork was one of his former students at Yale Law School, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, five years before he was elected president.
In five days of extensive hearings before the committee, Bork’s detractors pointed to his earlier writings, in which he criticized Roe v. Wade — the high court’s assertion of a constitutional right to privacy that extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion — affirmative action and aspects of several civil rights laws.
“Robert Bork’s America," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., declared on the Senate floor, “ 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."
During the nationally televised hearings, Bork, ever the professor and debater, seemed awkward and combative, unable to exhibit the deference demanded by the Senate. He displayed little of the charm and warmth that he was known for in private.
Bork’s supporters railed that questions over his fitness for the high court crossed the line and became personal attacks — to a degree considered unprecedented in a judicial nomination.
“They turned him into an absolute gargoyle, into a beast," Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., said.
The nomination was defeated 58 to 42. For Bork and his conservative supporters, it was a bitter defeat — and one that would not be forgotten.
Afterward, he issued a statement denouncing the process, saying that “the tactics and techniques of national political campaigns have been unleashed on the process of confirming judges. That is not simply disturbing. It is dangerous."
He became a popular public speaker in the following years, often attacking what he called “ultraliberals, radicals and leftists."
The bare-knuckle tactics used by Democrats during Bork’s nomination — probing the political views and legal philosophy of a judicial nominee — were adopted by both parties in a practice that became known as “borking."
Since the 1980s, judicial nominees have come under much greater scrutiny and have seldom sailed through the Senate without dissent, as they often had in the days before Bork.
Robert Heron Bork, the only son of a purchasing agent for a steel company, was born in Pittsburgh on March 1, 1927.
In 1962, he left a promising practice as an antitrust lawyer in Chicago and moved with his wife, the former Claire Davidson, and three young children to New Haven, Conn.
He spent the next 19 years teaching antitrust and constitutional law at Yale University, where his students included Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, future labor secretary Robert Reich, future two-time California governor Jerry Brown, future U.S. senator John Danforth, R-Mo., and future law professor Anita Hill, who would give controversial testimony opposing the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas in 1991.