Monday, November 01, 2010

How Judge Robert Bork Became a Verb

In late October newspapers reported that Virginia Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, telephoned Professor Anita Hill, a former aide to Justice Thomas, and in a voicemail message asked Hill to apologize to her husband. Anita Hill is probably best known for her testimony against Justice Thomas during his nomination hearings for the Supreme Court, for in her testimony, Hill cited multiple inappropriate sexual advances Thomas had allegedly made while Hill was his employee both at the Department of Education and at the Offices of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It was for making these allegations that Virginia Hill sought an apology.

That telephone call – and the memories of the Thomas Nomination it rekindled – served as a reminder that nominations to the Supreme Court are hardly as smooth a process as recent history may imply. Indeed, when looking at even a contemporary history of SCOTUS nominations, there have been startlingly pointed hearings that make President Obama’s success at benching two new Supreme Court Justices in his first two years appear somewhat astounding.

The 1987 nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court is probably the most angrily remembered by politicians of both parties (though for substantially different reasons), and is seen by many Republicans as having established new lows in the nomination process. That point is argued from the first day of the nomination, July 1, 1987, when within an hour of the announcement of the nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy minced no words on the Senate floor about the Democratic party’s stance against Judge Robert Bork.

Senator Kennedy continued:

This speech – succinctly remembered as "Robert Bork's America" – was met with a comparatively forgettable rebuttal by Senator Robert Dole, and statements against Reagan’s nominee continued in a combative vein, with questions raised about Bork's judicial rulings that seemed, to the political Left, to be directly at odds with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Among the most vocal of opponents to the nomination was then-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee (now Vice President of the United States) Joe Biden. In a 78-page document prepared for the Senator -- A Report to the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joseph Biden, on the nomination of Robert H. Bork to the United States Supreme Court -- Biden accused the Reagan White House of distorting Bork's judicial record to make him appear as political moderate, thus masking the ideological shift in the make-up of the Supreme Court that would result from his confirmation. As the Report stated the issue:

If this seems enough to ensure that Bork would fail as a nominee, the conversation was only beginning. In a move all-to-familiar in political theater, high-profile television ads were launched against the nomination, and news reports became decidedly personal, evoking rumors of Judge Bork's drinking habits and possible alcoholism. This widget provides an audio summary of commercial news reports made during the nomination hearings, running from the political to the personal:

In the end, the weight of accusations and evidence against Judge Bork led to the Judiciary Committee voting to move the nomination to the full Senate, but without their support for Bork's affirmation to the Supreme Court, a decision that rankled both the White House and the nominee. President Reagan, looking to salvage his nominee, took his message to the public, asking them directly to contact their Senator to vote in support of the nomination.

The result was negligible, with the nomination ending in a 58-42 Senate vote against Bork's appointment to the Supreme Court, with discussions remaining volatile until the day of the vote.

For its blistering rhetoric and focus on personal habits and public perception, the Bork nomination was a turning point for many politicians and commentators. The tone of that entire summer, from the July announcement through the October vote, displayed to many a viciousness in discourse unseen -- and unexpected -- in discussions of surrounding the Supreme Court. Indeed, from 1988 forward, in virtually every Congressional discussion on the Supreme Court nomination process, and sometimes in the nomination hearings themselves, Robert Bork's name is used to illustrate either how unworkable the nominations process can become, or how unfit a candidate to the Court can be. The change in tone was enough that the nominee's very name became synonymous with the process he'd been put through, and Robert H. Bork the man became simply, "Bork," the verb:

Definition of "Bork" in the OED

Full-text of the Bork confirmation hearings are available in Lexis-Nexis Congressional, and video recordings are available via the C-Span video archive for all five-days of hearings, or in a three-hour summary.

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