Remembering Judge Bork
A tribute


I had the pleasure of spending the last year with Judge Bork — The Judge, as he’s affectionately called by all who knew him — in helping him complete a book chronicling his tumultuous first few months as solicitor general for President Nixon.

We always worked from the sun room of his Virginia home — he in his easy chair, me in mine. He told stories of meeting Nixon, of being mistaken for L. Ron Hubbard while in London, and of arguing in front of the Supreme Court for the first time with almost no preparation.


I learned quickly how much he was adored by those who worked with him in the solicitor general’s office. We sent out a request asking them to send in memories of their time working for Bob. The stories came pouring in, and one came up again and again: Every morning, without fail, Bob would do the New York Times crossword. But instead of doing the puzzle in some corner of his private office, he would always sit at the far right corner of his couch — the only place in his office that could be viewed from the large and very public anteroom just outside his office.

I got a chance to experience his famous wit. After telling him I had bought an engagement ring but had not yet found the right time to propose, he took to introducing me to house guests as “a man with trouble disposing of his diamonds.”

Our sessions usually ended with a lunch prepared by Mrs. Bork. Cold gazpacho soup was a favorite of his, and one of her specialties. Mrs. Bork wasn’t always around during our sessions, but he always did his best work on days when she was. With her presence came an unmistakable ease in the cadence of his voice, along with a sly smirk as he tried to make her laugh. He always did.

— Mitch Boersma writes from Washington, D.C.

I did not know Judge Bork as well as many of my colleagues, who had studied under him, worked closely with him, or clerked for him. My interactions were limited to occasional small talk at a Federalist Society event or a church function. In those limited interactions, I grew to admire the obvious strength of Judge Bork’s commitment to his dear wife, Mary Ellen. But I will leave to others who knew him better the tributes to Judge Bork, the man.

I can speak of Judge Bork, the legal thinker. Simply put, before I even met him, Robert Bork taught me more about the law in a few hundred pages than any law professor I studied under in law school. His The Tempting of America was a tour de force of conservative legal thinking. Published just as I was about to start law school, the book sought to reintroduce America to her Constitution after decades of its erosion, especially by the Warren court. It succeeded in reframing the constitutional debate for the generation to follow. More than anyone before him, Judge Bork gave voice to originalism in modern constitutional law, teaching that there is no better guide to constitutional meaning than the Framers’ understanding of the Constitution’s text. As he wrote in the book, “The truth is that the judge that looks outside the historic Constitution always looks inside himself and nowhere else.”

Even having been denied the opportunity to sit on the Supreme Court by a vicious partisan battle — one that still reverberates in politics some 25 years later — Robert Bork’s influence on the law cannot be gainsaid. And that influence will continue long after today. Requiescat in pace.

— Shannen W. Coffin, an attorney in Washington, D.C., was the deputy assistant attorney general in charge of the defense of the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act during the Bush administration.

Robert A. Destro
Judge Robert Bork was a lion. When historians unsullied by the blowback of the culture wars of which he was the first, and most prominent, public victim, take serious stock of the man and his legacy, they will describe a brilliant and passionate advocate for justice and the rule of law. Heaven knows (and, we pray, is now rewarding) his willingness to speak the truth to those in power.

He had a regal presence both on and off the national stage. His style was elegant in its simplicity, and the directness of his message commanded the attention and respect of both admirers and detractors. I watched in awe as he made mincemeat of his detractors on the Senate Judiciary Committee, even while knowing all the while that the character-assassination campaign was likely to sink his appointment.

Robert Bork’s opponents were not sure that they could derail his nomination. As a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights during the crucial weeks before his confirmation hearings, I sat through many an informal discussion of the threat that Judge Bork posed to advocates for judicial supremacy over the rule of law. They focused, as they had to, on a message as perverse as it was direct: that Robert Bork — a man committed to the principle of equal justice under the law embodied in a written Constitution — could not be trusted to apply that principle in practice.

Many politicians have learned precisely the wrong lesson from the Senate’s refusal to confirm Robert Bork’s appointment: that it is better to be silent, and thought to be guided by principle, than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. Like Sir Thomas More, he reminded us in his speeches and writings that “The world must construe according to its wits. This court must construe according to the law.” R.I.P.

— Robert A. Destro is professor of law and director of the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion at the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.


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