With news of the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Obama White House and Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton are already staking a position that President Obama, and not his successor, should appoint Scalia’s replacement. But it’s useful to remember that one member of the Obama administration – Vice President Joe Biden – once had a very different opinion on the Senate’s ability to block a president’s nominee at all costs.
Following the retirement of Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1987, President Reagan nominated Judge Robert Bork.
Not an hour after Bork’s nomination, the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) took to the Senate floor to issue a clarion call to his fellow Democrats to block Bork at all costs. He stated:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of the Government, and the doors of the Federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens.
Democrats and their leftwing allies quickly moved into action to stop Bork’s appointment to the Court.
The vehemence and the dishonesty of the attacks reportedly stunned the Reagan White House. Bork, after all, was no more or less of an originalist than Justice Scalia, who was confirmed the year before by 98-0. (Though some would suggest that the unanimous vote had to do with Senate Democrats not wanting to block the nomination of the first Italian American to the Court.)
One of the key Democrats leading the charge was then Senator Joe Biden, the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
A legal brief called the Biden Report was drafted to dissect Bork’s background and positions with the clear intention of opposing him. Bork would later write that the Biden Report “so thoroughly misrepresented a plain record that it easily qualifies as world class in the category of scurrility.”
Ultimately, Biden’s Judiciary Committee rejected Bork’s nomination by a 9-5 vote, and eventually the full Senate would vote against his confirmation by 58-42.
The lasting legacy of the Bork nomination was the unprecedented viciousness of the campaign to block him, which has been the standard for Supreme Court nominations ever since. Indeed, the dictionary now contains the verb “bork” to describe the obstruction of a nominee “through systematic defamation or vilification.”