Bork’s civil rights stances concerned many during his 1987 confirmation process. He had not challenged Brown v. Board of Education, but when Congress considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Bork wrote a magazine article opining that while segregation was morally wrong, we should not have laws enforcing morality. He stated, “The principle of such legislation is that if I find your behavior ugly by my standards, moral or aesthetic, and if you prove stubborn about adopting my view of the situation, I am justified in having the state coerce you into more righteous paths. This is itself a principle of unsurpassed ugliness.” He used examples of barbers and chiropodists as those who should not be forced by legislation to serve blacks. As Bronner states, “those were codes at the time for the feelings of racists who did not want to have to touch blacks.” Labeling the desegregation of hotels, restaurants, gas stations, grocery stores, and other places open to the public as a principle of unsurpassed ugliness haunted him in the confirmation process.
At the Senate hearings, he said that while he had changed his mind about the Civil Rights Act even earlier, he had announced this change in 1973 at his confirmation hearing for Solicitor General. He said that his original stance was fueled by his concern over the coercion of individuals but had no good answers when asked if he had ever thought that segregation coerced black individuals. It was noticed that he publicly stated his changed mind only when his old views might have stood in the way of getting a position he sought.
Doubts about his sincerity and his civil rights views deepened in an exchange with Senator Arlen Specter at the hearing. Brown v. Board of Education was based on the Equal Protection clause, which applies to the states but not to the District of Columbia. The Supreme Court, shortly after Brown, used due process to hold that segregated schools in the nation’s capital were unconstitutional. When pressed by Specter, Bork said that he could not think of a rationale for Bolling v. Sharpe, the D.C. desegregation decision. At a break that occurred shortly thereafter, Bork’s advisers cautioned that he could not let his answer stand, and when the hearings resumed, he announced although he did not have a rationale for the decision, that “does not mean that I would ever dream of overruling Bolling v. Sharpe.” A calculated change of heart? It looked that way.
To many his civil rights stances seemed as to be abstract positions divorced from the harsh realities of America and its history. Bork’s views of constitutional privacy evoked similar reactions. In a 1971 law review article, Bork denominated himself a strict constructionist and said that only liberties explicitly protected in the Constitution could have constitutional protection. If the Constitution does not address a value, it must be left to the federal and state legislatures. He went on to attack Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 Supreme Court decision. Connecticut law forbade the use of contraceptives. That law had not just forbidden them for unmarried couples. No one could use them. It was a crime for a married couple to slip on or slip in a condom or diaphragm. The Supreme Court held this law unconstitutional, and many besides Bork found its reasoning troubling. The Court relied on a right to privacy that is not explicitly stated in the Constitution.
Bork’s criticisms of Griswold, however, went beyond what others had said. In what was an awkward analogy (to put it generously), he found identical a couple’s desire to use banned contraceptives and a company’s wish to defy a smoke pollution law. He wrote, “There is no principled way to decide that one man’s gratification is more worthy than another.” He went on to mock the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause by stating that the Court had created the “Equal Gratification” clause. (His analogy was remarkably bad. When a company pollutes, others must deal with the dirt and health effects of what is spewed into the air. Pollution is not a private affair. There are not similar external consequences when I hurriedly pull on a ribbed-for-pleasure Trojan.)
Bork’s view on privacy also appeared inconsistent with some of his other beliefs. Protected liberty, Bork maintained, was limited to what was enunciated in the Constitution, and that category could not be constitutionally expanded. He felt that individual liberties impeded the liberty of the majority. If I have a constitutional right to read pornography, the right of the majority to determine the community it wants is denied. But, of course, just as the Constitution does not explicitly give me a right to dirty movies, it does not explicitly give a right to the majority to ban them. Either right is an expansion from what is in the Constitution. Why one expansion and not the other? Bork was unclear of his choice of one over the other.
Bork was also asked about another inconsistency. The Constitution’s framers sought an executive with limited powers. Bork, however, claimed that the executive power was not static but was meant to evolve. Certainly, the Constitution does not explicitly grant evolutionary powers to the executive. So, of course, Bork was asked if executive power was not static and could evolve, why can’t liberty and other parts of the Constitution also evolve? Bork had no cogent answer. For many, Bork’s determination of what could grow and evolve was not based on any real constitutional principle. Instead, it was driven by a slightly disguised authoritarian agenda.
Bork’s privacy analyses took on some rather ridiculous solutions. If the community outlawed contraceptives, Bork maintained, the objector could move to another state as if this were as easy as going to the corner drugstore to get a cigar. When the Ku Klux Klan controlled Oregon in the early twentieth century (do schools in Eugene and Portland teach this history?), the state prohibited private education because it did not want Catholic schools. Moreover, due to differing prejudices, states had prohibited the teaching of certain foreign languages. The Supreme Court struck down these laws using a privacy analysis. For Bork, however, all those Oregonians who wanted a parochial education should have left the state and Nebraskans could move to get German classes.
But, again, Bork waffled. Although he had frequently attacked Griswold in uncertain terms, in the Senate hearing he became mealy-mouthed. He said that while the right-to-privacy rationale of Griswold failed, perhaps there was a more constitutional way to reach its result. He had never before suggested that.
Bork’s free speech views may have gotten even more attention than his civil rights and privacy positions. He had contended that only political speech was protected by the First Amendment. Artistic or personal speech could be regulated. This standard brought on many questions. For example, it is often hard to determine what is political speech. Was Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle about the meat industry political? If the cattle industry in Texas had controlled the legislature could that state have validly banned the book? And if nonpolitical speech is not protected, art books containing photographs of Michelangelo’s David could be banned if they offended officials’ sensibilities.
Furthermore, Bork maintained that the First Amendment did not protect all political speech. Speech advocating the government’s overthrow or advocating the violation any law could be suppressed. Bork was asked: Doesn’t this mean that Dr. Martin Luther King’s advocacy of violating segregation laws could be suppressed or even made criminal? Bork’s answer, according to his previously stated opinion, should have been “yes,” but again there was waffling. He now said that King’s speech was protected because King was testing the constitutionality of the segregation laws and because those laws were later found to be unconstitutional. This “new” position meant that King’s urgings would get First Amendment protection if they were not meant to provoke a constitutional test but not if were only aimed at getting a legislature to change the laws. And as Senator Patrick Leahy pointed out, Bork’s new position failed as a sensible legal standard—how could a person know in advance whether speech was protected if it took a later finding of a law’s unconstitutionality for protection?
Bork changed his position at the confirmation hearing on equal protection, too. Before his confirmation hearing, he had maintained that the original intent of the Equal Protection clause meant it only applied to race. It definitely did not apply to women, but now he enunciated a “reasonable basis” test for gender discrimination, a position he had never before mentioned. All these changes raised concerns about his intellectual integrity.
(Concluded on September 10)
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