Robert Bork. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Robert Bork stood out among his former Yale Law School faculty colleagues in a number of ways. Perhaps his least favorite distinction was becoming a verb.
Bork, who died this morning at age 85, taught at Yale Law from 1962 to 1975. He took a break to serve as solicitor general in the Nixon administration, earning notoriety as the Justice Department official who was willing to obey the president’s order to fire the Watergate special prosecutor.
Bork returned to Yale from 1977 to 1981, when President Ronald Reagan named him to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit. From that position, Reagan nominated Bork for the US Supreme Court—provoking bitter opposition by those who believed the conservative judge wanted to reverse decades of legal progress for racial minorities, women, and criminal defendants.
The nomination split the Yale Law School, with some of Bork’s former colleagues testifying for him and some against. Eventually the Senate voted down the nomination, spawning the verb “bork”—as in, “you’ve been borked.”
In 2006, former student Caren Deane Thomas ’75JD called Bork “the perfect example of someone who should be kept off the Supreme Court at all costs. He was too extreme to serve on a court of last resort and showed little regard for the Bill of Rights. He had the intellectual arrogance of an ideologue, and his conservatism served causes like Watergate.” (By contrast, Thomas wrote, the Senate should approve the nomination of another conservative judge: her law school classmate Samuel Alito.)
Bork had his fans, of course, including the law students who founded the conservative Federalist Society under his tutelage and later produced this tribute video. And journalist Jeff Greenfield ’67LLB calls Professor Bork “as bracing a figure as a student could hope to find.”
“Without question Bork was out of the mainstream of the Yale Law School in the mid-1960s, when I was a student there,” Greenfield writes today. “But that made him exactly the right person to teach, and to challenge, the assumptions of an overwhelmingly liberal group of students.
“In the years after his Supreme Court rejection, Bork became a dyspeptic, partisan figure,” Greenfield concludes. “On this day, I choose to remember him as a teacher who succeeded in the single most important job: He taught us how to think.”
Among Bork’s survivors are daughter Ellen Bork ’83 and sons Robert Bork Jr. and Charles Bork ’81.