MCLEAN, Va. – Robert H. Bork, whose failed nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1980s helped draw the modern boundaries of cultural fights over abortion, civil rights and other issues, has died. He was 85.
Son Robert H. Bork Jr. confirmed his father died Wednesday at a hospital in Virginia. The son said Bork died from complications of heart ailments.
Brilliant, blunt, and piercingly witty, Robert Heron Bork had a long career in politics and the law that took him from respected academic to a totem of conservative grievance.
Bork’s defeat during the 1987 Senate court nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives. The fight over Bork was the first national political and lobbying offensive mounted against a judicial nominee, and it has defined every high-profile judicial nomination since.
The process also created a verb, “to bork,” meaning vilification of a nominee on ideological grounds.
Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy summed up the opposition to Bork at the time by saying, “In Robert Bork’s America there is no room at the inn for blacks and no place in the Constitution for women.”
The experience embittered Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, even as it gave him prominence on the conservative speaking circuit.
“Robert Bork was a giant, a brilliant and fearless legal scholar, and a gentleman whose incredible wit and erudition made him a wonderful Hudson colleague,” said Kenneth Weinstein, head of the Washington think-tank Hudson Institute, where Bork was a distinguished fellow.
Bork became widely known as a conservative cultural critic.
His 1996 book, “Slouching Towards toward Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline,” was an acid indictment of what Bork viewed as the crumbling ethics of modern society and the morally bankrupt politics of the left.
“Opportunities for teen-agers to engage in sex are … more frequent than previously; much of it takes place in homes that are now empty because the mothers are working,” Bork wrote. “The modern liberal devotion to sex education is an ideological commitment rather than a policy of prudence.”
Bork served a relatively short tenure on the bench. He was a federal judge on the nation’s most prestigious appellate panel, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, from 1982 until 1988, when he resigned in the wake of the bitter Supreme Court nomination fight.
Earlier, Bork had been a private attorney, Yale Law School professor and a Republican political appointee. At Yale, two of his constitutional law students were Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.
“I no longer say they were students,” Bork joked long afterward. “I say they were in the room.”
President Richard Nixon named Bork as solicitor general, the administration’s advocate before the Supreme Court, in January 1973. Bork later served as acting attorney general, then returned to the solicitor general’s job until 1977, far outlasting the Nixon administration.
Long mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee, Bork got his chance toward the end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. He was nominated July 1, 1987, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell.
Nearly four months later, the Senate voted 58-42 to defeat him. It was the largest negative vote ever recorded for a Supreme Court nominee.
Reagan and Bork’s Senate backers called him eminently qualified — a brilliant judge who had managed to write nearly a quarter of his court’s majority rulings in just five years on the bench, without once being overturned by the Supreme Court.
Critics called Bork a free-speech censor and a danger to the principle of separation of church and state.
Bork’s opponents used his prolific writings against him, and some called him a hypocrite when he seemed to waver on previous strongly worded positions.
Despite a reputation for personal charm, Bork did not play well on television. He answered questions in a seemingly bloodless, academic style and he cut a severe figure, with hooded eyes and heavy beard.
Stoic and stubborn throughout, Bork refused to withdraw when his defeat seemed assured.
Bork would say later that the ferocity of the fight took him and the Reagan White House by surprise, and he rebuked the administration for not doing more to salvage his nomination.
In later years, some accused Bork of borking President Bill Clinton’s nominees with nearly the zeal that some liberal commentators had pursued him.
Bork denied any animus, and said he was happy commenting, writing and making money outside government. Even friends did not entirely believe that.
“He was very embittered by the experience,” said lawyer Andrew Frey, a longtime friend who worked for Bork in the solicitor general’s office. “He was not well treated, and partly as a result of that he did become more conservative.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat in McLean, Virginia., contributed to this story.