On the Death of Judge Robert Bork
Paul J. Larkin Jr. /
The world saw Judge Robert H. Bork, the public figure. He was in the public eye as a solicitor general, a circuit judge, and—most famously—as a nominee to the Supreme Court. Those who knew him as a Yale Law School professor, an author, and a legal commentator would have had a deep appreciation of the man as a keen intellect with an ever-inquisitive mind.
But I was luckier than even those people were, for I had the profound good fortune to clerk for Judge Bork when he sat on the appellate court.
Most people think that appellate judges spend their time ruminating about esoteric legal issues in a case, without giving much thought to how their rulings will affect the individuals involved. That may be true of some judges, but it wasn’t true of Judge Bork.
I remember a contract case that I worked on as a law clerk. It raised pretty much every legal issue that we had covered in the course on contracts that every first year law student takes. Indeed, the case read like a final exam on contract law.
It was, in sum, the kind of case least likely to garner any public interest at all. Yet Judge Bork approached it as though it raised issues of tremendous public import. I remember discussing the case with Judge Bork. The night before the parties presented their oral arguments in court, Judge Bork walked into my office to discuss it. He asked not just about what my research had found, but also for my opinion on the case—not something every judge is interested in hearing from a mere clerk.
I told him that I was 90 percent certain that one of the parties was right on every issue. “Ninety percent is not good enough,” he responded. He went on to explain that he wanted to be certain about what to do in the case, and that he wanted to get it right because what he did affected people.
Judge Bork never viewed cases as just an opportunity for him to issue pronouncements about the law. He believed that his job was to decide each particular case—and to decide it correctly. Opinions were just a way to explain why a judge cast a vote one way or another.
My entire clerkship with Judge Bork was an experience that I’ve come to treasure more and more as it fades further and further into the past. Others who clerked for him feel the same way. Judge Bork always listened respectfully to our ideas and recommendations. He engaged us in debate as though we were faculty colleagues—and always with the goal of finding the right answer to any and every legal issue.
Throughout my clerkship and ever since, he treated me and everyone else with dignity. Those who had the good fortune to work for the man soon found that they had somehow become a member of his extended family, and we enjoyed that unique status until his death earlier today.
Having had the privilege of knowing Judge Bork as a person, his death resonates deeply. And it hurts. The legal and conservative communities may have lost a standard bearer today. But a small group of us also lost a person whom the public never had the opportunity to know. And we will miss him more than the public—not knowing him—can possibly imagine.