The Bork Nomination

President Reagan’s nomination of Judge Robert Bork to succeed Justice Lewis Powell on the Supreme Court presents the Senate with an unusual problem. For Bork’s views do not lie within the scope of the longstanding debate between liberals and conservatives about the proper role of the Supreme Court. Bork is a constitutional radical who rejects a requirement of the rule of law that all sides in that debate had previously accepted. He rejects the view that the Supreme Court must test its interpretations of the Constitution against the principles latent in its own past decisions as well as other aspects of the nation’s constitutional history. He regards central parts of settled constitutional doctrine as mistakes now open to repeal by a right-wing court; and conservative as well as liberal senators should be troubled by the fact that, as I shall argue here, he has so far offered no coherent justifications for this radical, antilegal position.

It would be improper for senators to reject a prospective justice just because they disagreed with his or her detailed views about constitutional issues. But the Senate does have a constitutional responsibility in the process of Supreme Court appointments, beyond insuring that a nominee is not a crook or a fool. The Constitution is a tradition as well as a document, and the Senate must satisfy itself that a nominee intends in good faith to join and help to interpret that tradition in a lawyerlike way, not to challenge and replace it out of some radical political vision that legal argument can never touch.

The Senate’s responsibility is particularly great in the circumstances of the Bork nomination. Bork is the third justice added to the Court by an administration that has for seven years conducted an open and inflexible campaign of ideological appointments on all levels of the federal courts, hoping to make them a seat of right-wing power long after the administration ends. Reagan made no effort to disguise the political character of Bork’s appointment: he said that Bork is “widely regarded as the most prominent and intellectually powerful advocate of judicial restraint,” and that he “shares my view” of the proper role of the Court. Conservative pressure groups are already raising money to support the nomination, and the right-wing New York Post has challenged liberals to “make our day” by opposing it.

Bork’s appointment, if confirmed, promises to achieve the dominance of the right on the Supreme Court that Reagan’s previous appointments failed to secure. For Justice Powell has been a swing vote, siding mainly with the right on issues of criminal law but with more liberal justices on other issues of individual rights, and he has provided the fifth and conclusive vote, one way or the other, on many occasions. If Bork votes as those who support him have every reason to expect he will, the Court will have lost the balance that Powell provided, and it will have lost the opportunity for cases to be decided one by one on…

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