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December 19. 2012 9:38PM

Controversial jurist Robert Bork dies


Robert Bork testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his hearing as a nominee as justice for the Supreme Court on Sept. 18, 1987, in Washington. Bork's failed nomination sparked an enduring political schism over judicial nominations. Bork died Wednesday at age 85. (Washington Post file photo by James K.W. Atherton)
WASHINGTON - Robert Bork, an American symbol of conservative judicial activism who played pivotal roles in Washington dramas around the Supreme Court and Watergate and whose name became a verb, died on Wednesday at age 85.

Bork died in a northern Virginia hospital where he had been treated for an infection, said Leonard Leo, executive vice-president of the conservative Federalist Society.

Nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1987, Bork was rejected by the Democratic-led U.S. Senate over his conservative judicial philosophy. He became a potent symbol to conservatives.

"To bork" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002 with the definition, "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."

"My name became a verb," Bork told CNN in 2005. "And I regard that as one form of immortality."

Bork was already known to Americans as a figure in the Watergate scandal - the man who carried out Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor in 1973's "Saturday Night Massacre" - when he was nominated to the Supreme Court.

Within 45 minutes of his nomination on July 1, 1987, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy took to the Senate floor to denounce him as a man who wanted to outlaw abortion, ban the teaching of evolution and revive racial segregation. Bork said not a line of the speech was accurate.

After a fierce confirmation fight, the Senate in October rejected Bork 58-42, the largest margin of defeat for any Supreme Court nominee and a big loss for Reagan.

Judicial conservative

Bork's judicial conservatism, and especially fears he might vote to overturn abortion rights, led liberal, civil rights and feminist groups to join ranks against him.

They charged that the burly, goateed Bork, then a federal judge, held views too extreme for the highest court. They warned he might cast the decisive vote to overturn the court's 1973 abortion rights decision and endanger anti-segregation rulings of the 1950s and 1960S, despite Bork's assurances he would not disturb "settled law."

His supporters saw a political witch hunt. In later court fights, they used memories of the Bork hearings to rally their conservative supporters.

On Wednesday, supporters remembered him as a pioneer in a school of constitutional thinking devoted to the text and original meaning of the Constitution.

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in a statement released by the Federalist Society, called Bork one of the most influential legal scholars of the last 50 years.

Leo called Bork "one of our country's fiercest and most articulate defenders of the Constitution as it was written."

Like many other conservative justices - although more outspoken and in great recorded detail - Bork held that judges should interpret the law narrowly according to the "original intent" of the Constitution's framers rather than making new law, which they called judicial activism.

At his confirmation hearings, Bork's long record of writings and decisions as an active jurist made him vulnerable to attack. Among the most controversial were his views that the Constitution contained no generalized right to privacy nor unlimited authorization of free speech.

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