Profile: Robert Bork
Robert Bork was a participant or observer in the following events:
Washington Post headline of firings. [Source: Washington Post]After Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox refuses President Nixon’s offer of a “compromise” on the issue of the White House tapes (see October 19, 1973), Nixon orders (through his chief of staff Alexander Haig) Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. Richardson refuses the presidential order, and resigns on the spot. Haig then orders Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus to fire Cox. Ruckelshaus also refuses, and resigns also. Haig finally finds a willing Justice Department official in Solicitor General Robert Bork, who is named acting attorney general and fires Cox. (Of the firing, Bork tells reporters, “All I will say is that I carried out the president’s directive.”) White House press secretary Ronald Ziegler announces that the Office of the Special Prosecutor has been abolished. FBI agents are sent to prevent Cox’s staff from taking their files out of their offices. Ziegler justifies the firing by saying that Cox “defied” Nixon’s instructions “at a time of serious world crisis” and made it “necessary” for Nixon to discharge him. After his firing, Cox says, “Whether ours shall continue to be a government of laws and not of men is now for Congress and ultimately the American people.” The press dubs Cox’s firings and the abolishment of the OSP the “Saturday Night Massacre,” and the public reacts with a fury unprecedented in modern American political history. In a period of ten days, Congress receives more than a million letters and telegrams (some sources say the number is closer to three million), almost all demanding Nixon’s impeachment. Congress will soon launch an impeachment inquiry. Former Washington Post editor Barry Sussman writes in 1974 that Cox’s firing was not a result of impetuous presidential anger. Nixon had been more than reluctant to accept a special prosecutor for Watergate. Cox, named special prosecutor in the spring of 1973, had quickly earned the ire of White House officials and of Nixon himself, and by October 7, Nixon had announced privately that Cox would be fired. [Washington Post, 10/21/1973; Sussman, 1974, pp. 251; Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum, 7/3/2007]
Entity Tags: John Sirica, Archibald Cox, Alexander M. Haig, Jr., Barry Sussman, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Richard M. Nixon, William Ruckelshaus, John Stennis, Elliot Richardson, Robert Bork, Ron Ziegler
Timeline Tags: Nixon and Watergate
According to former Reagan Justice Department official Terry Eastland, writing in his 1992 book Energy in the Executive, the process of selecting Antonin Scalia as a Supreme Court Justice begins now, well before anyone knows there will be a vacancy for him. Attorney General Edwin Meese asks his assistant attorney general, William Bradford Reynolds, to advise him in preparing a nominee, “just in case.” Reynolds assembles a team of Justice Department officials, who examine about twenty possible choices, mostly federal judges, focusing primarily on conservative judicial philosophy. Two individuals stand out: Robert Bork and Scalia. Eastland writes, “Neither was ranked over the other; both were regarded as the best available, most well-qualified exponents of Reagan’s judicial philosophy.” Both are seen as powerful and influential legal figures. When Chief Justice Warren Burger announces his decision to retire from the bench, Reynolds advises Meese to choose Justice William Rehnquist to replace Burger as Chief Justice (see September 26, 1986), and to choose either Bork or Scalia to replace Rehnquist. Reagan makes the final decision: Scalia. [Dean, 2007, pp. 133]
Steven Calabresi joins the Justice Department. Calabresi is a young conservative lawyer who has clerked for appeals court Robert Bork, who failed to secure a position on the Supreme Court just months before (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Calabresi, a co-founder of the Federalist Society of conservative lawyers and judges, joins forces with another ambitious young Justice Department lawyer, John Harrison, and the two begin working to expand the power of the president. Calabresi and Harrison decide that an aggressive use of presidential signing statements can advance the president’s authority to the detriment of the legislative and judicial branches. Unfazed by a recent judicial rejection of just such signing statement usage (see 1984-1985), Calabresi and Harrison write a memo to Attorney General Edwin Meese advocating the issuing of more signing statements as part of a larger strategy to increase the president’s influence over the law. Calabresi and Harrison are interested in how what they call “activist judges” use the legislative history of a bill that became law to interpret that law’s meaning in subsequent judicial actions. The two lawyers believe that by issuing signing statements, the president can create a parallel record of presidential interpretations of potentially ambiguous laws to help guide judicial decisions. Meese approves of the idea, and in December has the West Publishing Company, which prints the US Code Congressional and Administration News, the standard collection of bills’ legislative history, begin including presidential signing statements in its publications. In 2007, author Charlie Savage will call Meese’s move “a major step in increasing the perceived legitimacy of the device.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 232] In 2007, Calabresi will say: “I initially thought of signing statements as presidential legislative history. I’ve subsequently come to think of them as being important vehicles by which presidents can control subordinates in the executive branch. They subsequently came to be important to the unitary executive [theory of presidential power].” [Savage, 2007, pp. 234]
A federal appeals court agrees with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that the Fairness Doctrine, which mandates that broadcasters provide opportunities for different sides of controversial political and social issues (see 1949 and 1959), is no longer needed (see 1985). [Jamieson and Cappella, 2008, pp. 45] In the case Meredith Corp. v. FCC, the court rules 2-1—with Reagan administration appointees Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia overriding the third judge—that Congress had not actually made the Fairness Doctrine an actual law. Bork writes, “We do not believe that language adopted in 1959 made the Fairness Doctrine a binding statutory obligation” because the doctrine was imposed “under,” not “by,” the Communications Act of 1934. In Bork’s opinion, the 1959 amendment established that the FCC could apply the doctrine, but is not legally obliged to do so. Therefore, the FCC can retain or drop the rule as it likes. According to the Media Access Project, “The decision contravened 25 years of FCC holdings that the doctrine had been put into law in 1959.” [Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, 2/12/2005; Museum of Broadcasting, 1/27/2008]
Robert Bork. [Source: National Constitution Center]The controversial nomination of conservative judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court is defeated in the US Senate. Bork is denied a seat on the Court in a 58-42 vote, because his views are thought to be extremist and even some Republicans vote against him.
'Right-Wing Zealot' - Bork, nominated by President Reagan as one of the sitting judges who most completely reflects Reagan’s judiciary philosophy (see 1985-1986), is characterized even by administration officials as a “right-wing zealot.” Reagan also wants a nominee to placate the hard right over their disaffection caused by the brewing Iran-Contra scandal. However, to make him more palatable for the majority of Americans, Reagan officials attempt to repackage Bork as a moderate conservative. Senate Judiciary Committee member Edward Kennedy (D-MA) attacks Bork’s political philosophy, saying before the committee hearings: “[In Bork’s America] 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, 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 citizens for whom the judiciary is the—and is often the only—protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.… No justice would be better than this injustice.” Kennedy’s words provoke complaint, but the characterization of Bork is based on his lengthy record of court verdicts and his large body of judicial writings.
Racial Equality Issues - Although there is no evidence to suggest that Bork is himself a racist, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write that “his positions on civil rights were an anathema to all who cared about equality in America.” Constitutional law professor Herman Schwartz will write in 2004, “Bork condemned the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause decisions outlawing the poll tax (to him it was just ‘a very small tax’), the decision establishing the one-person, one-vote principle, abolishing school segregation in the District of Columbia, barring courts from enforcing racially restrictive housing covenants, preventing a state from sterilizing certain criminals or interfering with the right to travel, and prohibiting discrimination against out-of-wedlock children…. Bork’s hostility to governmental action on behalf of minorities did not stop with his critique of court action. In 1963 he criticized a section of the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964 that required white businesses to serve blacks as resting on a principle of ‘unsurpassed ugliness.’”
Ready to Fight - The Reagan administration understands that Bork’s nomination is opposed; on July 1, the day of his announced nomination, the media reports that Reagan will try to ensure Bork’s confirmation by waging an “active campaign.” Even Senate-savvy James Baker, Reagan’s chief of staff, is uncertain about Bork’s chances at being confirmed, and further worries that even if Bork wins the fight, the cost to Reagan’s political capital will be too high.
His Own Worst Enemy - Conservatives Justice Department official Terry Eastland will later say Senate Democrats sabotage Bork’s chances at faring well in the confirmation hearings, even positioning his table to ensure the least favorable angles for Bork on television. However, the public’s opinion of Bork is unfavorable, and Dean will write: “[I]t was not the position of his chair in the hearing room that made Bork look bad, but rather his arrogance, his hubris, and his occasional cold-bloodedness, not to mention his equivocations and occasional ‘confirmation conversions,’ where he did what no one else could do. He made himself a terrible witness who did not appear to be truthful.” The confirmation conversions even surprise some of his supporters, as Bork abandons his previous stances that the First Amendment only applies to political speech, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause does not apply to women. The Senate Judiciary Committee passes Bork’s nomination along to the full Senate, where Bork is defeated 58-42.
The Verb 'To Bork' - In 2007, Dean will write, “Bork’s defeat made him both a martyr and a verb,” and quotes conservative pundit William Safire as writing that “to bork” someone means to viciously attack a political figure, particularly by misrepresenting that figure in the media. [Dean, 2007, pp. 137-143]
Entity Tags: Herman Schwartz, US Department of Justice, Gregory Peck, Edward Kennedy, US Supreme Court, William Safire, Ronald Reagan, James A. Baker, Senate Judiciary Committee, Terry Eastland, Robert Bork, John Dean
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
After Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court fails (see July 1-October 23, 1987), President Reagan nominates an equally hard-line conservative, appeals court judge Douglas Ginsberg. Ginsberg withdraws his nomination after the press learns that he had ignored a serious conflict-of-interest problem while at the Department of Justice, that he had smoked marijuana as both a student and a professor at Harvard Law School, and that, though Ginsberg professes to be stringently anti-abortion, his wife is a doctor who has herself performed abortions. Reagan will nominate a third and final selection for the Court, the somewhat more moderate Anthony Kennedy. [Washington Post, 1998; Federal Judicial Center, 9/26/2006; Dean, 2007, pp. 143-144]
When Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first and only African-American to serve on the Court, announces his retirement, the Bush administration is ready with a far more conservative replacement. President Bush himself is already under fire for previously naming a moderate, David Souter, to the Court, and Bush is determined to give his conservative base someone they can back. Although Bush had wanted to nominate an appropriately conservative Hispanic, his eventual nomination is Clarence Thomas, who is completing his first year as a judge on the DC Court of Appeals. Thomas has two qualifications that Bush officials want: like Marshall, he is African-American; unlike Marshall, he is as conservative a jurist as Antonin Scalia (see September 26, 1986) or Robert Bork (see July 1-October 23, 1987). Two of former President Reagan’s closest legal advisers, C. Boyden Gray and Lee Liberman (a co-founder of the conservative Federalist Society), privately call Thomas “the black Bork.” Bush calls Thomas “the most qualified man in the country” for the position. [New York Times, 7/2/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] During the July 2 press conference to announce Thomas’s nomination, Bush says: “I don’t feel he’s a quota. I expressed my respect for the ground that Mr. Justice Marshall plowed, but I don’t feel there should be a black seat on the Court or an ethnic seat on the Court.” For his part, Thomas extols his upbringing as a desperately poor child in Georgia, crediting his grandmother and the nuns who taught him in Catholic schools as particular influences on his life and values. Republican senator Orrin Hatch says that opposing Thomas will be difficult: “Anybody who takes him on in the area of civil rights is taking on the grandson of a sharecropper.” [New York Times, 7/2/1991] However, the non-partisan American Bar Association’s recommendation panel splits on whether Thomas is qualified or not, the first time since 1969 the ABA has failed to unanimously recommend a nominee. Twelve panelists find Thomas “qualified,” two find him “not qualified,” and none find him “well qualified.” One senior Congressional aide calls the assessment of Thomas “the equivalent of middling.” [New York Times, 8/28/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] In 2007, former Nixon White House counsel John Dean will write, “For the president to send a nominee to the Supreme Court with anything less than a uniformly well-qualified rating is irresponsible, but such decisions have become part of the politicization of the judiciary.” Thomas, himself a beneficiary of the nation’s affirmative action programs, opposes them, once calling them “social engineering;” he has no interest in civil rights legislation, instead insisting that the Constitution should be “color-blind” and the courts should stay out of such matters. Civil rights, women’s rights, and environmental groups are, in Dean’s words, “terrified” of Thomas’s nomination. To overcome these obstacles, the Bush administration decides on a strategy Dean calls “crude but effective… us[ing] Thomas’s color as a wedge with the civil rights community, because he would pick up some blacks’ support notwithstanding his dismal record in protecting their civil rights. [New York Times, 7/2/1991; Dean, 2007, pp. 146-153] The nomination of an African-American quells some of the planned resistance to a conservative nominee promised by a number of civil rights organizations. [New York Times, 7/2/1991] Three months later, Thomas will be named to the court after a bitterly contentious brace of confirmation hearings (see October 13, 1991).
Entity Tags: Orrin Hatch, US Supreme Court, Lee Liberman, Robert Bork, John Dean, Thurgood Marshall, David Souter, American Bar Association, Bush administration (41), Antonin Scalia, George Herbert Walker Bush, Clayland Boyden Gray, Clarence Thomas
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Harriet Miers. [Source: Harpers.org]After President Bush successfully places conservative judge John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court (see September 29, 2005), he names White House counsel and personal friend Harriet Miers to replace the retiring Sandra Day O’Connor on the Court.
Firestorm of Criticism - The media reacts adversely to this; Miers is said to be insufficiently qualified for the position and to have been chosen because of her loyalty to Bush. Her nomination is further derailed by opposition from hard-line conservatives, who do not believe she is conservative enough in her beliefs, particularly on abortion. Miers is certainly a weak choice from most viewpoints—she has no constitutional law experience and lacks a reputation as a strong legal thinker. She has never been a judge, nor even published an academic law journal article. Even conservative stalwart Robert Bork, who is still a center of controversy from his failed Court nomination (see July 1-October 23, 1987), calls Miers’s nomination “a disaster on every level.” When a letter Miers had written Bush for his birthday in 1997 is published in the media—in which Miers gushed over Bush in breathless, almost schoolgirlish prose, calling him “cool!” and “the best governor ever!”—the derision hits a fever pitch. When she submits a questionnaire to the Senate Judiciary Committee listing her background and qualifications for the job, a questionnaire almost devoid of pertinent and specific information, the ranking members of the committee threaten to have her do it over, a humiliation she avoids by withdrawing her name from consideration.
Trumped-Up Dispute over Executive Privilege - The Senate asks to see Miers’s White House memos to judge the quality of her legal work, and the White House refuses, citing executive privilege. Many view the dispute as a trumped-up conflict designed to allow the Bush administration to save what little face it can in the debacle; neoconservative columnist Charles Krauthammer had suggested engineering just such a “conflict” to stage “irreconcilable differences over documents” that would allow the Bush White House to withdraw Miers’s nomination over the issue.
Withdrawal - Miers indeed asks Bush to withdraw her nomination, and Bush cites the documents dispute in announcing the decision to pull Miers from consideration: “It is clear that senators would not be satisfied until they gained access to internal documents concerning advice provided during her tenure at the White House—disclosures that would undermine a president’s ability to receive candid counsel,” Bush says. “Harriet Miers’s decision demonstrates her deep respect for this essential aspect of the Constitutional separation of powers—and confirms my deep respect and admiration for her.” Bush settles on another nominee, Samuel Alito, to replace O’Connor (see October 31, 2005 - February 1, 2006). [Savage, 2007, pp. 262-266; Dean, 2007, pp. 155]
Staunch Advocate for Expanded Executive Power - In 2007, reporter and author Charlie Savage will write that, in his view, the Bush administration chose Miers for a simple reason: she is a staunch advocate for the continued expansion of presidential power. “Miers… could be counted on to embrace Bush’s expansive view of presidential powers,” he will write. Miers is quite loyal to Bush “and, through him, the institution he represented.” Miers’s adoration of Bush on a personal level would further guarantee her “solid support for any presidential claim of power that might come before the Court,” he will write. “Like Roberts before her, she was an executive branch lawyer who identified with the task of defending the prerogatives of the president.” On the questionnaire she submits to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Miers writes that as White House counsel, she has gained significant constitutional experience in “presidential prerogatives, the separation of powers, executive authority, and the constitutionality of proposed regulations and statutes.… My time serving in the White House, particularly as counsel to the president, has given me a fuller appreciation of the role of the separation of powers in maintaining our constitutional system. In that role, I have frequently dealt with matters concerning the nature and role of the executive power.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 265-267]
Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, John G. Roberts, Jr, Sandra Day O’Connor, Samuel Alito, Senate Judiciary Committee, Harriet E. Miers, Charlie Savage, George W. Bush, Bush administration (43), Charles Krauthammer, Robert Bork
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
Former White House official Lewis Libby, facing criminal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for his involvement in the Valerie Plame Wilson identity leak (see October 28, 2005), joins the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank that focuses on foreign policy and national security. Libby is a senior fellow whose focus will be issues related to terrorism and Asia, and will also advise the institute on strategic planning. Other prominent conservatives who are members of the Hudson Institute are former Reagan administration Solicitor General Robert Bork (see October 19-20, 1973 and July 1-October 23, 1987), and former National Security Agency Director William Odom (see September 16, 2004). Libby will be paid a salary commensurate with his White House remuneration of $160,000. [Washington Post, 1/6/2006]
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