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Bork, whose failed Supreme Court nomination made history, dies

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 10:06 a.m.
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Robert Bork was nominated by President Reagan to the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court in 1987, but his confirmation was denied by the Senate. Bork died Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at 85. Getty Images
Judge Robert Bork, nominated by President Reagan to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court, is sworn before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill at his confirmation hearing on Sept. 15, 1987. Bork, whose failed Supreme Court nomination made history, died Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at the age of 85. Associated Press file photo

Conservatives and legal scholars mourned the death on Wednesday of Robert H. Bork, who lost a U.S. Supreme Court bid in 1987 but became a voice of the modern intellectual conservative movement.

Bork died in Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington from complications of heart ailments, his son, Robert H. Bork Jr., confirmed. He was 85.

Born in Pittsburgh on March 1, 1927, Bork was a respected academic who became a titan in the legal field and authored several legal books. He was a partner at a prestigious law firm, a professor at Yale Law School, solicitor general of the United States and a judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

He recently chaired Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's advisory committee on the judiciary and courts.

His death is “not just a deep loss to the legal and conservative communities, but also a profound loss to everyone who came to know him as a human being,” said Edwin Feulner, president of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative policy group.

Edwin Meese III, who was attorney general under President Reagan and chairs the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at Heritage, called Bork “one of our nation's greatest legal minds and a distinguished champion of the Constitution.”

“He leaves a lasting legacy of scholarly excellence and integrity, as well as a record of dedicated service to our country,” Meese said.

In his long career in politics and law, Robert Heron Bork quickly became a lightning rod for liberals.

As the third-highest ranking Justice Department official, Bork fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox at Richard Nixon's behest in 1973, earning him criticism of being a partisan hatchet man. Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned, rather than fire Cox. The next in line, William Ruckelshaus, refused to fire Cox and was fired.

“He was a fascinating figure in the Watergate saga ... and (became) an intellectual force in the modern conservative movement,” said Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne University School of Law. “Most intellectual conservatives were mentored by Robert Bork.”

Cox never held the firing against Bork, said Gormley, who wrote the authorized biography, “Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation.”

“Someone was eventually going to do it,” Gormley said. “It wasn't a surprise.”

Bork grew up in Emsworth and remained fond of Pittsburgh.

“He was a gregarious and charming fellow, quite different from the characterizations that were made of him over the years,” Gormley said.

Bork attended Avonworth High School from 1941 to 1943, transferring to a private school for his senior year. At Avonworth, Bork was the junior class president in 1943 and a member of the debate team in 1942, said Dana C. Hackley, the school's communications director.

Bork's drubbing during the 1987 Senate nomination hearings made him a hero to the right and a rallying cry for younger conservatives. The Senate experience embittered Bork and hardened many of his conservative positions, but it gave him prominence as an author and lasting popularity on the conservative speaking circuit.

Though Bork didn't always hold to conservative values — he told a Washington legal journal in 1998 that he was a radical while growing up — conservative legal scholars lauded Bork as an intellectual leader of the move toward originalism, which calls for interpreting the Constitution as the Founding Fathers envisioned. “Beginning as a professor at Yale, he probably had more consequential impact on the law than anyone else,” said Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal & Judicial Studies at Heritage. “Judge Bork had an incredible impact on anti-trust law.”

Long considered a possible Supreme Court nominee, Bork got his chance toward the end of Reagan's second term. The president nominated him on July 1, 1987, to fill the seat vacated by Justice Lewis F. Powell.

Nearly four months later, the Senate voted 58-42 to defeat Bork, during the first national political and lobbying offensive mounted against a judicial nominee. It was the largest negative vote ever recorded for a Supreme Court nominee.

Reagan and Bork's Senate backers argued he was eminently qualified; critics called Bork a free-speech censor and a danger to the principle of separation of church and state.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or

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