David Greenberg: ‘Borking’ Before Bork

David Greenberg is a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers University.

THE death on Wednesday of Robert H. Bork, the conservative judge whose Supreme Court nomination was rejected by the Senate in 1987, has prompted a flood of commentaries describing his confirmation battle as a historic turning point. By opposing Mr. Bork for his right-wing views, it is alleged, Senate Democrats engaged in an unprecedented act of brazen partisanship against Ronald Reagan’s nominee, politicizing a once deferential process.

These claims are wrong. Although Mr. Bork’s confirmation certainly represented a major battle of the Reagan years, the campaign to defeat him was neither unprecedented nor illegitimate.

For much of the nation’s history, the Senate took seriously its role to provide “advice and consent” in the judicial nomination process. Nominees were frequently turned down, for reasons including partisanship and ideology. In 1795 the Senate rejected George Washington’s nominee for chief justice, John Rutledge, largely because of his view on the 1794 peace treaty with Britain....

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