The Senate hearings were in one sense a televised civics lesson: Bork, a burly man with a heavy beard, repeatedly defended — in dry scholarly terms — his view that judges should play a limited role in American life. He faced sustained Democratic attacks on his writings in academia and on the federal bench.
Among the topics up for discussion were Bork's views on civil rights. In 1963, he had written disapprovingly of the pending Civil Rights Act and called the government's effort to stop discrimination in restaurants, hotels and other areas of public accommodation "a principle of unsurpassed ugliness." Ten years later, in a hearing on his nomination to be Nixon's solicitor general, he said had been wrong about the civil rights legislation.
Of the many Southern Democrats still in the Senate in 1986, by then dependent on significant African-American support at the polls, only Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina voted for Bork.
Edwin Meese, who was Reagan's attorney general at the time, was a leading proponent of counteracting what he saw as liberal judicial excesses, characterized most vividly by the Warren court, by making judges of people like Bork and Scalia.
"The vicious opposition by the left to Bob Bork's nomination turned what had sometimes been a contentious confirmation process into literally a political campaign," Meese said Wednesday.
The wrangling over nominees, once confined to the Supreme Court, now affects even candidates for district court judgeships. And nominees, looking back at Bork's performance, now routinely duck questions intended to elicit politically damaging responses that might provide a reason for senators of one party or the other, to cast "no" votes.
The Senate eventually rejected Bork's nomination 58-42, with the help of a half-dozen Republicans who joined all but two Democrats in voting against him.
In later years, Bork joked that he achieved a measure of immortality anyway, because his name became a verb signifying the vilification of a nominee on political grounds, as in, to Bork a nominee.
After the Senate vote, the Reagan administration said it would nominate Douglas Ginsburg, but that choice faltered over Ginsburg's admission that he had smoked marijuana while a professor at Harvard Law School.
He withdrew and the White House put up Kennedy, who was confirmed without a dissenting vote and whose ongoing role as the swing vote in many of the cases that split the justices on ideological grounds remains a source of consternation among conservatives.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Mark Sherman has covered the Supreme Court for The Associated Press since 2006.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.