Robert H. Bork, who died on Dec. 19 at age 85 in Arlington, Va., is most famous for what he didn’t do: sit on the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan nominated Bork, a former solicitor general in the Nixon administration and a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, to replace Justice Lewis Powell on the nation’s highest court. The announcement promptly triggered a firestorm of opposition, and Bork’s bruising five-day-long nomination hearing in the Senate became a televised spectacle. Supporters saw him as a faithful adherent to the original intent of the U.S. Constitution’s framers, while opponents — including the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) — saw him as a zealot who would roll back individual and civil rights.
Ultimately, Bork’s nomination was rejected by the Senate Judiciary Committee and by the full Senate. In a 1990 memoir, Bork blamed his defeat upon politics, writing that Democrats saw it as a way to strike a blow against a president whose power had been weakened by the Iran-contra scandal, and that “I was a symbol they needed to destroy.” Indeed, New York Times legal correspondent Stuart Taylor presciently observed at the time that the battle over Bork forever changed the confirmation process itself, turning it into a bruising gantlet.
Here are six intriguing facts about the man who didn’t make it to the Court:
- Bork, who was criticized by opponents as an enemy of the derived right of privacy in the U.S. Constitution, inadvertently helped to increase it. After a reporter obtained and published a list of movies that Bork and his family had rented from a video store, Congress passed the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988, which made such intrusions illegal.
- While Bork’s most famous act as Nixon’s solicitor general was firing Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the October 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre,” he also helped to launch the career of a prominent liberal. In 1974, he hired a young assistant named Robert Reich, who went on to become President Bill Clinton’s labor secretary and, after that, a frequent commentator on cable TV.
- As a professor at Yale Law School, he taught constitutional law to both Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham, who would later marry Clinton and is now secretary of state in the Obama administration.
- Bork is one of the few figures in American history whose name became a verb. In 2002, the Oxford English Dictionary defined “bork” as “To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, especially in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way.”
- Bork was the inspiration for the look of the character Judge Roy Snyder on The Simpsons.
- Bork became as a Roman Catholic in 2003. He explained to National Catholic Register reporter Tim Drake that one of the advantages of late-life baptism was that it wiped clean any prior misdeeds, and “at that age you’re not likely to commit any really interesting or serious sins.”