Thursday, December 20, 2012

Not borked

One political fight from the Reagan years that still resonates was the battle to prevent Robert Bork from becoming a justice on the US Supreme Court. To this day, conservatives consider Bork, who died Wednesday (US time), as a sort of martyr. To those on the centre and left who fought his nomination, as I did, he was a divisive symbol of conservative judicial activism.

When Bork was nominated, I was a board member of the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the state’s only statewide LGBT civil rights group at the time. I was becoming increasingly active on federal issues, and the Bork fight was one of the first I took on.

I received an anti-Bork flyer from some group—I forget which one, though at the time I knew—and I adapted it for our group. That flyer is in the photo with this post (click to embiggen). That same, October 1987 newsletter, contained an article I wrote titled “Bork Battle Begins” (then as now, I liked alliteration in titles). Here's that story:
Beginning what some are calling the most important civil rights battle since the 1960s, the US Senate Judiciary Committee has opened hearings on the nomination of Robert Bork to the US Supreme Court. In his opening statement, Bork declared that his philosophy of judging is “neither conservative nor liberal,” but based on a responsibility “to discern how the (Constitution’s) framers’ values, defused in the context of the world they knew, apply to the world we know.”

Bork’s belief in “original intent” means, among other things, that he doesn’t believe in a Constitutionally protected right to privacy—especially for lesbian and gay people. As a Court of Appeals judge in the District of Columbia, Bork ruled that “it (is) impossible to conclude that a right to homosexual conduct is ‘fundamental’ or ‘implicit’ in the concept of ordered liberty” (Dronenburg v Zech et al.). He has also spoken and written disparagingly of the rights of women and blacks. His more moderate tone before the Senate Judiciary Committee has led some Senators to wonder which is the real Bork, and they have begun referring to Bork’s “confirmation conversion”.

Meanwhile, organizations around the country, and Illinois, have called for the rejection of Bork’s nomination. The Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force recently joined other groups in a meeting with assistants to US Senator Alan Dixon (D, Illinois), in an effort to persuade Dixon to oppose the Bork nomination. Dixon’s staff was non-committal, but on Monday, September 14, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Dixon was leaning toward approval of Bork. Though Dixon’s office denied the report, Dixon’s often conservative voting record in the Senate suggests that his vote is highly questionable.

US Senator Paul Simon, Illinois’ other Senator, has expressed reservations about Bork. But Simon is a Democratic presidential candidate, and his final vote is uncertain.

The Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force is urging all of its members and supporters, and everyone who believes in “Justice for All”, to phone and write to Senators Dixon and Simon. Say YES to justice by saying NO to Bork!
The first thing I must say about that is that I certainly wouldn’t write that way now. But, that was 25 years ago and a lot has changed, including me. It was also intended as political speech for our organisation, and not as objective reporting.

Ultimately, of course, Bork’s nomination was rejected. On October 6, 1987, the Senate Judiciary committee voted 9-5 to reject the nomination, making rejection by the full Senate inevitable. On October 23, 1987, the Senate voted 58-42 against confirmation. Both of the US Senators from Illinois at that time, Alan Dixon and Paul Simon, voted to reject the nomination. The chair of the Judiciary Committee was Joe Biden, who is now Vice President. When Bork’s nomination was rejected, the replacement nominee was Anthony Kennedy who was far less rigidly conservative than was Bork.

There’s one odd aside I learned just today, that the word bork was given a specific meaning I’d never heard: "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, esp. in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way." That definition was clearly coined by conservatives. The reason it surprised me is that I’d always heard that slang term used as a synonym for broken, as in, “his TV is totally borked.”

On October 11, 1987, not even two weeks before Bork’s nomination was rejected by the Senate, several hundred thousand people took part in the “March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights”. I was there. One of our chanted slogans was “Bork Bork!” and that usage meant, fairly obviously, “reject”.

Nothing has happened in the 25 years since those days to change my opinion of Bork, or what a disaster it would have been for the US if he’d actually made it to the US Supreme Court. But other disasters—Scalia, Thomas, Alito—did make it through. Still, the US is lucky that so many of us stood up for what was right and prevented Robert Bork from borking the US Constitution (there, that word back in its correct usage).

The flyer pictured above, and the text of the newsletter article I've reprinted, are from the Illinois Gay and Lesbian Task Force Monthly Bulletin, Volume 1, Number 4, October, 1987. It is from my personal archives.

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