Mere hours after the news broke that Justice Antony Scalia died over the weekend, the political fight over his sudden vacancy already broke out. Senate Republicans argue the next president should nominate his replacement. Meanwhile, Barack Obama, citing constitutional duties, will submit his pick. Everyone from pundits on cable news to scholars of U.S. history are pointing to various precedents to guide this election-year game-changer.
One U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight getting aired in all this chatter concerns Robert H. Bork, whose legacy may be less jurisprudential than lexical.
After the retirement of Justice Lewis Powell on June 26, 1987, President Ronald Regan nominated Robert Bork to replace him on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senate Democrats notoriously and publicly blitzed Bork’s nomination. Other liberal-leaning organizations further fueled the characterization of the then-appellate judge as an extremist. His video rental records were even leaked (though his viewing habits were quite vanilla). The Senate rejected Bork’s nomination in a 58-42 vote. (The Senate later confirmed Justice Antony Kennedy in a 97-0, after Douglas Ginsburg withdrew his nomination over concerns of past marijuana use).
Thanks to this heated contest over his failed nomination, Bork was borked, eponymously verbed for “to vilify a nominee, especially in the mass media, in order to prevent their appointment to a public office,” if I may paraphrase the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for this memorable moment in U.S. political slang. Bork can more widely referring to thwarting a person in a similar manner, though it generally stills wears a flag pin, so to speak. This is not be confused with the caricatured interjection, Bork!, of the Muppet Swedish Chef, nor the internet-y slang, borked, meaning “broken.”
William Safire dated the first usage of bork – not long after his very nomination – to The Atlanta -Journal Constitution on August 20, 1987: “Bork’s opponents are in a frenzy. Frenzied mortals amplify some facts and gloss over others. Let’s just hope something enduring results for the justice-to-be, like a new verb: Borked. Dictionaries will say it’s synonymous with ‘maligned’.” Language has indeed memorialized Bork’s last name, though not quite honoring the original intent of this early usage.
Post-Bork, bork had a good deal of currency into the early 1990s but since ebbing, if my ear is any measure. But now, with the Republican-controlled Senate already urging the President not even to nominate Scalia’s successor, we’ll have to see if Bork gets something of a comeuppance: to pre-Bork, perhaps? Then again, blocking a nomination may just backfire – er, bork-fire, shall we say. However it shakes out, the next months in U.S. politics is going to be one cluster-bork, no doubt.