We’re Still Paying the Price for the Borking of Robert Bork
In the summer of 1987, right out of college, I was a summer intern for Senator Joe Biden, who was chairing the Robert Bork confirmation hearings. My contribution to the epic battle was modest: I helped with research for a speech on the history of the confirmation process, in which Biden argued that the Senate had the duty to scrutinize not only the legal qualifications but also the constitutional views of nominees. This was a controversial proposition at the time; today it has been taken to extremes that neither Biden nor Bork, who died today at 85, could have imagined.
But even from the sidelines, as I celebrated Bork’s defeat, I remember feeling that the nominee was being treated unfairly. Senator Edward Kennedy set the tone with a demagogic attack. “Robert Bork’s America,” he said, “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.”
Bork’s record was distorted beyond recognition, and his name was transformed from a noun into a verb. The Borking of Bork was the beginning of the polarization of the confirmation process that has turned our courts into partisan war zones, resulting in more ideologically divided opinions and less intellectually adventurous nominees on the left and the right. It led to the rise of right-wing and left-wing judicial interest groups, established for the sole purpose of enforcing ideological purity and discouraging nominees who have shown any hint of intellectual creativity or risk-taking. And it had obvious costs for Bork.