Bork, who was 85, had a distinguished career that included serving as acting Attorney General, Solicitor General and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. But he is perhaps best remembered for his unsuccessful nomination for the United States Supreme Court, which faced stiff resistance from liberals and civil liberties advocates.
Despite warnings from Democrats that they would oppose Bork, president Ronald Reagan nominated him for the high court in 1987. That prompted fierce opposition from Democrats, including a memorable speech in which liberal stalwart Sen. Ted Kennedy warned that Bork would return America to a bygone era.
“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, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of Americans,” Kennedy said at the time.
Bork was ultimately rejected in a 58-42 vote. Many of his critics’ concerns arose because of Bork’s close association with originalism, a judicial philosophy that stresses hewing to the words and original intent of the Constitution.
“A judge, no matter on what court he sits, may never create new constitutional rights or destroy old ones,” Bork wrote. “Any time he does so, he violates not only the limits to his own authority but, and for that reason, also violates the rights of the legislature and the people.”
Bork also faced criticism for his role in the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” under President Richard Nixon. Nixon ordered then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, who was investigating the Watergate affair and had subpoenaed the President in an attempt to obtain Nixon’s secret tape recordings.
Richardson resigned, as did Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelhaus. That elevated Bork to the role of acting Attorney General, and he obliged Nixon’s request. Bork’s role in the incident also helped undermine his candidacy for the Supreme Court.