Obituary: Robert H. Bork / Jurist bruised by hearings in failed bid for top court

March 1, 1927 - Dec. 19. 2012

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Robert H. Bork, whose last name became a verb after his failed attempt to be confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, died Wednesday at a hospital in Arlington, Va. He was 85.

Judge Bork's death was confirmed to The New York Times by his son Robert Jr. The cause of death was complications stemming from heart ailments.

Judge Bork was a Pittsburgh native and a student at Avonworth High School from 1941 to 1943.

In a 2004 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette interview, he joked about how his name had become a synonym for making partisan attacks on a nominee for high office. "That's one form of immortality, isn't it?" he remarked.

Judge Bork had faced harsh criticism from Democrats during 1987 hearings on his Supreme Court nomination by President Ronald Reagan and he ultimately failed to win confirmation. The seat to which Judge Bork was nominated was filled eventually by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The attacks on Judge Bork spawned the term "to bork," which has the informal meaning of maintaining a drumbeat of media attacks, often unrelated to qualifications, on a candidate for office.

"The experience of reciprocal recrimination in consideration of judicial appointments ... all begins with the confirmation hearings for Judge Bork," federal Appeals Court Judge Jose Cabranes said. "He was a distinguished and serious scholar who was badly treated when he was nominated for the Supreme Court seat."

Judge Bork was a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, from 1982 until 1988. He resigned after his bitter Supreme Court nomination fight. While he was a professor at Yale Law School, his students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham.

He first gained wide public notice during the Watergate scandal that ended with the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Judge Bork was the third-ranking official at the Justice Department when he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973. Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his second in command, William Ruckelshaus, had resigned rather than fire Cox. Cox died in 2004.

Judge Bork had served most recently as senior political adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

During his youth in Ben Avon, Judge Bork, the son of a steel company executive, lived on Dickson Avenue, only a few blocks up the hill from the now-demolished first Avonworth High School.

Although they grew up in the same small borough, Senior U.S. District Judge Maurice B. Cohill Jr., 83, said he did not get to know Judge Bork until they both were members of the federal judiciary.

"When I saw him once in Washington, I reminded him that he had gone to high school with my older sister," Judge Cohill said. "I cannot say that we were personal buddies, but I admired his willingness to speak out."

That willingness to speak out created a 30-year-long paper trail that helped to bring him grief during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing. His bluntness and his calls for judicial deference to legislators, however, were among the things that endeared him to many conservatives.

Although he lived in Ben Avon for only a brief time, Judge Bork stayed in touch with some of his classmates. Norman Ward Jr., who became an investment banker, was his debate partner at Avonworth.

"They would talk on the phone," Mr. Ward's son, Norman III, recalled. "On occasion when my parents got to Washington, they would get together for dinner."

Norman Ward III said his father, who died last year, shared a conservative political outlook with Judge Bork.

While Judge Bork was initially criticized for his role in firing Cox during the Watergate era, his actions have been viewed more favorably in recent years.

"The whole point of Bork's staying was that Richardson and Ruckelshaus wanted to make sure Nixon couldn't get control of the Justice Department," Judge Cabranes said.

After he became acting attorney general, Judge Bork had allowed the Watergate probe to continue under Cox's successor, Leon Jaworski. "There is no truth to the myth that Bork was seeking to derail the investigation," Judge Cabranes said. The 2nd Circuit jurist and a former general counsel for Yale, Judge Cabranes got to know Judge Bork when he was a law school professor there.

Ken Gormley, the dean of the law school at Duquesne University who wrote a 1997 biography of Cox, agreed that Judge Bork should not be seen as the villain in the "Saturday Night Massacre."

Both Richardson, who died in 1999, and Mr. Ruckelshaus had pledged to the Senate not to interfere with the ongoing investigation of allegations of illegal campaign activities and efforts to cover up wrongdoing by members of the Nixon administration, Mr. Gormley said. Judge Bork, the nation's solicitor general, had not made that kind of promise.

Judge Bork had considered resigning as well, Mr. Gormley said, but had been urged by Richardson and Mr. Ruckelshaus to carry out what was ultimately a valid order from Nixon.

Judge Bork was born March 1, 1927, in Pittsburgh. He was the son of Harry Bork, a steel company purchasing agent, and Elizabeth Kunkle, an English teacher. After his years at Avonworth, he attended the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut.

Judge Bork served in the Marine Corps during World War II. After his military service, he earned both undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago, joining the firm of Kirkland and Ellis following graduation. An expert in antitrust law, he joined the Yale faculty in 1962.

He and his first wife, the former Claire Davidson, were the parents of three children, Robert Jr,. Charles and Ellen. She died in 1980. In 1982, he married Mary Ellen Pohl, a conservative activist and former nun. In addition to his widow and children, he is survived by two grandchildren.


Len Barcousky: or 412-263-1159. The New York Times contributed.


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