Sunday, December 23, 2012

Discovering Judge Bork

Robert Heron Bork died last Wednesday morning at the age of 85, of complications from heart disease. Judge Bork was one of the preeminent jurists of our time, holding to the interpretation of the Constitution according to the intent of those who wrote it, on the presupposition that they actually meant what they wrote at the time. One might expect no less of anyone with a measure of integrity, to say what they mean, and to mean what they say, even in our time.

There have been many tributes written to honor the man. There will be more in the days ahead. This may well be among the least of them, in the mere shadow of those who knew him better. Be that as it may ...

In 1973, when President Nixon ordered the firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation, the Attorney General resigned after refusing to carry out the order, followed by the Deputy Attorney General. This left Bork, then Solicitor General, in the position of Acting Attorney General, and who proceed to follow through on the order, in what became known as the “Saturday Night Massacre.” In 1987, when President Reagan nominated Bork to the United States Supreme Court, the Democrats in Congress launched into a severity of scrutiny into his legal opinions, and assaults on his personal character, unprecedented for a President's selection to the High Court. His nomination was defeated by a record margin. A new term was introduced to the political vocabulary, as such character assassination in the public realm was thereafter known as being “borked.” And yet, his role as an architect of the "originalist" school of constitutional law inspired peers and protegés alike, and in concert with his grace and tenacity under fire, he won a new generation of admirers.

VIDEO: A tribute to Judge Bork produced by The Federalist Society in April of 2011.

I never really knew the judge, but I did know his second wife, the former Mary Ellen Pohl. (His first wife, the former Claire Davidson, died of cancer in 1980.) Mary Ellen is an accomplished teacher and lecturer on issues concerning the Gospel of Life in her own right, and I was a student in a Theology of the Body class she conducted in 2004. A pleasant and most graceful woman, she was the perfect complement for the irascible former Marine. In over thirty years of living in Washington, I wasn't always at ease in a room full of public figures, which can be a liability on occasion in the Nation's capital. I had only met him once, at a lecture about seven or eight years ago. As I was introduced to the judge by his wife, I said the first stupid thing that came to my head: “It's nice to meet you, sir. I've heard so much about you.” He looked up at me out of the corner of his eye with suspicion and growled: “WHERE???” I was a bit taken aback: “Well, um, I read the papers and, um, I may have come across your name once … or twice.” Thankfully, Mary Ellen was the wiser of us, and gently nudged him to move on.

The story came back to me yesterday, as a Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated for his repose, at the Church of Saint John the Beloved in McLean, Virginia. In attendance were six members of the United States Supreme Court, several prominent members of Congress, and numerous political pundits, syndicated columnists, former law clerks, family, friends, and admirers. After he was laid to rest with military honors, and a volley fired by his fellow Marines, a repast was held at the Bork residence.

Shortly after my arrival, a distinguished gentleman confined to a walker required assistance getting a cup of tea, and so I obliged him. Upon sitting at the table with several other gentlemen, all of whom knew the judge quite well, it came into conversation that this gentleman was a professor at Ave Maria University. My interest was piqued.

“So, what do you teach, sir?”

    “Whatever I damn well please.”

“Well, then, what is it that damn well pleases you these days?”

    “Catholic social doctrine.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Rev Vincent Fitzpatrick, retired prolife anarchist, now a priest of the Diocese of Fargo.

Then followed a discussion of this subject, on to the so-called "Catholic vote" among Latinos, and then to the Theology of the Body. After about fifteen minutes, someone comes along and introduces him by name to someone else. I had been engaging none other than Michael Novak, the eminent Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat, with whose work I had been familiar for many years. And so, with the professor and other distinguished gentlemen, we sipped martinis and spoke of our encounters with the judge. It came as no surprise, then, that they were sufficiently amused with my own first encounter.

There were so many others in attendance to remember the passing of an old friend, men and women who may or may not have been public figures, but who were nonetheless accomplished, and whose stories held my rapt attention. I was at the residence for over an hour, and it went by all too quickly.

When I would see him at St John's with Mary Ellen, you could tell he was fading. There were occasions in the final years when he actually gave interviews, even then refusing to mince words when it came to certain parties by name, but these were welcome respites from the continued failure of his health. His devoted wife cared for him at home for the last several years. Knowing of how my own mother spent half her married life caring for my father, a man slowing wasting away with multiple sclerosis, I knew that no man could be loved more by any woman than Mary Ellen loved Robert. “Behind every great man ...”

There are times when we only get to know a man by the company he keeps. And so, I left that house knowing, not only the measure of the man, but what it was to be in such good company. This is how I will remember the man I barely knew. Whatever injustices were meted out to Robert Bork in this life, his case proceeds forthwith to the Highest Court, and the most Just Judge.

May justice and mercy prevail in Robert's favor, and he may enter into Eternal Life.

Amen.
 

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