WASHINGTON — Early Dec. 19, Judge Robert H. Bork died in an Arlington, Va., hospital of complications from heart disease.
A renowned legal scholar and former professor at Yale, Bork served as U.S. solicitor general and U.S. attorney general, as well as sat as a judge on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit from 1982-1988, where he was succeeded by Clarence Thomas.
Today, he is probably best remembered for the contentious Senate confirmation battle that followed his nomination to the Supreme Court by President Ronald Reagan.
The acrimony of that confirmation, which included Sen. Edward Kennedy’s now-infamous description of "Robert Bork’s America" and featured a denunciation by Bill Clinton (a former student of Bork’s from his years of teaching at Yale), has cast a long shadow over subsequent Supreme Court nominations.
It also gave the English language a new verb, "to bork," defined by the 2002 Oxford English Dictionary as "to defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way."
Bork resigned his seat on the D.C. Circuit in the aftermath of the hearings, leading some commentators to suggest that he had been embittered by the process. However, Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey III, who was instrumental in Bork’s conversion to Catholicism in 2003, offered a description of his friend that counters this dark portrait.
"[Bork] could play the curmudgeon. He was hirsute; he had the beard — he was also a big smoker. He could have been a jazz musician in the 1950s. He had an ironic sense of humor. … [But] he was fun to be with. One of the things he was famous for was the Bork martini," said Father McCloskey, referring to a special recipe the judge concocted to serve to guests at his house. "I wouldn’t call him a slap-your-back kind of fellow, but he was fun to be around."
Bork was greatly influenced in his conversion by his second wife, Mary Ellen Pohl, a former Catholic nun. Former National Review editor Kate O’Beirne, a friend of the Borks who also acted as Judge Bork’s godmother, described Mrs. Bork as a key influence on his decision to enter the Church.
"Through his towering intellect, Bob Bork reasoned his way to the faith with his beloved wife, Mary Ellen, as his indispensable guide and example," O’Beirne told the Register.
Bork himself repeated the same tale from a different angle, when he paraphrased a congratulatory note sent by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, the editor of First Things, shortly after his reception into the Church: "[N]ow all of the saints [can] get some rest from Mary Ellen’s importuning."
Over the past 10 years, Mary Ellen Bork continued to take care of her husband physically, as she had done spiritually, supervising his care as he battled a number of serious health problems.
Bork himself, speaking in an interview with Register senior writer Tim Drake, put a humble and typically witty spin on his conversion: "There is an advantage in waiting until you’re 76 to be baptized, because you’re forgiven all of your prior sins. Plus, at that age you’re not likely to commit any really interesting or serious sins."
With Bork’s death, constitutional experts will revive their speculative meditation on what his legacy on the Supreme Court might have been. Certainly the jurisprudence of the last 25 years would have had a different flavor with Bork on the bench instead of Reagan’s substitute nominee, Anthony Kennedy.
Judge Bork’s legacy also includes three bestselling books, including Slouching Towards Gomorrah (1996) and Coercing Virtue (2003). They offer his penetrating insights into the social problems facing modern America and how they are manifested in legal and political dysfunction.
As Father McCloskey put it: Bork "basically saw where we are today, 10 to 15 years ago — he saw the relativism; he saw the government playing too big a part in society.
"He was a prophet."
Sophia Mason blogs at GirlWhoWasSaturday.blogspot.com
and lives in Arlington, Virginia. A longer version of this
story can be found at NCRegister.com.