To many, Bork had adopted positions in order to be noticed by the right wing with the goal of being nominated for the Supreme Court. His ambition had long been apparent. A Yale Law School skit well before his nomination said, “Bork would do anything to get on the Court.” As a judge on the Court of Appeals, he gave many speeches to right wing groups leading some to conclude that he was trying to curry favor with the Reagan administration. A speech at Carleton College delighted a brand of conservatives when he said that egalitarianism rejects hierarchies. Such rejection of hierarchy lead to moral relativism and denies the right of society to impose moral standards (unless, of course, those standards include rights for minorities, women, and people engaging in sex). Such moral relativism, Bork maintained, leads to business regulations to redistribute wealth. Instead, Bork said, inequality is, and should be, the natural condition.
The conservative University of Chicago Law School professor Philip Kurland, my teacher who had a deep intellectual influence on me, said what many believed: Bork adopted views that pleased the right to promote himself. Bork certainly led conservatives to believe that he was ready to overturn many despised Court decisions despised by the right. A few months before his nomination he had said that an originalist judge should have no trouble in overruling non-originalist decisions because such precedent “has no legitimacy.” A few years earlier he had said, “I don’t think precedent is all that important.” Again, however, as with other views that now seemed to impede his path to the Supreme Court, he changed. At his confirmation hearing he said that “great respect” must be given to precedent.
Bork’s positions and their changes led many—I am included in this—to believe he was unprincipled. Bork had attracted the attention of conservatives, and had secured his nomination, by criticizing Supreme Court decisions that, he proclaimed, needed to be overturned by a Court that based its decisions on original intent, the only valid method of constitutional interpretation. But at the confirmation hearing, Bork again and again said that many of those decisions were now acceptable as firm precedent, or they now represented his views, or they could be reached by different reasoning. As Senator Patrick Leahy satirically said, Bork often had a “confirmation conversion.”
Another senator asked Bork why he wanted to be on the Supreme Court. Bork replied that he hoped that he could contribute to our constitutional governance, but he also said that he enjoyed the courtroom and the “give and take and the intellectual effort involved.” He continued that “the Supreme Court has the most interesting cases and issues, and I think it would be an intellectual feast just to be there. . . .” Ethan Bronner comments: “Bork’s ‘intellectual feast’ line would live in infamy. . . . The bearded egghead from Yale just wanted to play with ideas. He didn’t understand that beyond those elegant intellectual constructs, the lives of real people hung in the balance.”
A Supreme Court justice should have more than an intellect. A justice should understand society and history, not just constitutional decisions. A justice should have empathy and not just bloodless legal smarts. Time and again in the confirmation process—when he discussed his civil rights, privacy, and free speech positions—he indicated abstract intellectual views that were divorced from the impact his positions would have on everyday Americans.
Bork’s confirmation process brought out things that were unfair, but it also brought out an extensive examination of his views that were relevant in determining whether he should be on the Supreme Court. Bronner summarizes: “Bork answered questions for thirty hours over five days. Inside the hearing room there was posturing, but there was also real intellectual give and take. Bork had the opportunity to lay out his constitutional vision. The dispute over Bork can be summed up as a substantive debate with some slander.”
Rereading Bronner’s Battle for Justice again, I concluded, again, that Bork was not borked. Instead I was reminded of what William Blake said: “The fox condemns the trap, not himself.”
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