Robert Bork, a symbol of the U.S. conservative legal movement and a failed nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, died on Wednesday, Leonard Leo, executive vice-president of the conservative Federalist Society, said.
Leo said Bork, who was 85 years old, died in a northern Virginia hospital where he had been treated for an infection.
One of the few Americans to give his name to a verb, Bork became a potent symbol to conservatives after the Senate voted down his nomination to the United States Supreme Court in 1987.
"To bork" was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002 with the definition, "To defame or vilify (a person) systematically, especially in the mass media, usually with the aim of preventing his or her appointment to public office; to obstruct or thwart (a person) in this way."
Bork was already known to Americans as a controversial bit-player in the Watergate scandal - the man who carried out Richard Nixon's order to fire the special prosecutor in 1973's "Saturday Night Massacre" - when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court.
Within 45 minutes of his nomination, Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy took to the Senate floor to denounce him as a man who wanted to outlaw abortion, ban the teaching of evolution and revive racial segregation. Bork complained that not a line of the speech was accurate.
After a fierce confirmation fight, the Senate rejected Bork 58-42, the largest margin of defeat for any Supreme Court nominee and a big defeat for Reagan.
Bork remained bitter for years and conservatives regarded him as a martyr to liberal activism and unreason, and used him as a rallying cry in subsequent battles.
It was not Bork's Watergate role but his judicial conservatism, and especially fears he might vote to overturn abortion rights, that led a coalition of liberal, civil rights and feminist groups to join ranks against him.
They charged that the burly, goateed Bork, then a federal judge, held views too extreme for the highest court in the land. They spread alarms he might cast the decisive vote to overturn the court's 1973 abortion rights decision and endanger anti-segregation rulings of the 1950s and 1960S, despite Bork's assurances he would not disturb "settled law."
His supporters, however, saw a political witch-hunt. In future court fights, they used memories of the Bork hearings to rally their conservative supporters.
"He was a tremendous figure in the American legal tradition — one of our country's fiercest and most articulate defenders of the Constitution as it was written. He pioneered the development of a school of constitutional thinking in this country that was devoted to the text and original meaning of the Constitution, and was a tremendous and devoted public servant and academic, and a very good man personally," Leo told Reuters on Wednesday.
Robert Bork was born in Pittsburgh on March 1, 1927 and graduated from the University of Chicago Law School in 1953. He converted to Catholicism in 2003.