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Monthly Archives: February 2013


A coda to the Bork nomination that never was

Here’s Archibald Cox’s take on the Saturday Night Massacre, according to a Talking Points Memo reader who heard these remarks during an undergraduate course to which Cox was speaking:

I got a call from Attorney General Richardson saying, “Professor, the President wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Elliott, you do what you think is right.” And so Richardson resigned rather than fire me. Then I got a call from Deputy Attorney General Ruckelshaus, who became Attorney General when Richardson resigned. And he said, “Professor, the President wants me to fire you.” So I said, “Well, Bill, you do what you think is right” — and he resigned, too. Then I got a call from the next man in line at the Justice Department, Solicitor General Bork. He hadn’t been my student.



Nixon offered Bork a Supreme Court vacancy?

Robert Bork, in his posthumously published memoir, Saving Justice, claims that Richard Nixon promised to appoint him to the Supreme Court after Bork followed Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973. From the Associated Press:

Bork writes that he didn’t know if Nixon actually, though mistakenly, believed he still had the political clout to get someone confirmed to the Supreme Court or was just trying to secure Bork’s continued loyalty as his administration crumbled in the Watergate scandal.

I’d vote for the latter, if I had to choose one. It’s hard to imagine that Nixon could have believed that a Democratic-controlled Senate would confirm the man who carried out the Saturday Night Massacre. (Then again, maybe I’m just displaying the limits of my imagination.) But I have my doubts about the latter explanation too. Once you tackle a dirty job that the two people ahead of you at the Justice Department resigned rather than perform, it would seem that you’ve demonstrated loyalty that would not require payoffs to cement.

 We could also have fun with the alternate-universe scenario, in which we never get the Great Confirmation Struggle of 1987 because Bork either (a) gets nominated and confirmed, or (b) gets nominated and rejected, thereby making him damaged goods when Lewis Powell leaves Reagan a pivotal vacancy to fill.


Alan Westin, R.I.P.

It seems fitting that my first blog post pay tribute to a scholar whose undergraduate Supreme Court courses at Columbia inspired my choice of career path. The battle over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court had sparked my interest in constitutional debates and the Court’s role in shaping them, but it was in Prof. Westin’s courses that I knew that this interest would not be fleeting. But don’t worry–this post will not be shrouded in the rosy fog of nostalgia for my undergraduate days, or what my daughter refers to as “ye olden times.”

I don’t recall that Westin was an especially spellbinding orator, but he was an effective communicator who gave me the sense that he was doing something he loved with his life. And I appreciated that his course wasn’t structured to demonstrate how great he was as a researcher when his contractual obligations didn’t compel him to spend time with students.

But thinking about Westin’s courses also makes me think about how judicial politics was and is taught. By the late 1980s, the behavioral revolution had already begun to make its mark on scholarship concerning the Supreme Court, yet I suspect Westin’s courses were typical in their lack of recognition of quantitative study of the Court. The standard approach to teaching the Supreme Court has been to focus on the evolution of legal doctrine, and, more broadly, to treat it as a junior-varsity version of a law school course. Mark Graber has highlighted the disjunction between what political scientists (of all methodological leanings) learn through their research and what they choose to share with their students, and today more political scientists have heeded Graber’s call for pedagogy that integrates our discipline’s contributions. But none of these issues would have occurred to me while I was sitting in a windowless room in the International Affairs Building thinking about constitutional questions.

If you click through to the Times obituary linked above, make sure to read the last paragraph for a delicious bit of irony of a sort that I’m not used to seeing in Times obituaries.