During a speech for a gay marriage group in New York on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden highlighted a fight that he took on almost 30 years ago that helped sew the seeds for last month’s Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.
In 1987, Ronald Reagan nominated fiercely conservative judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. The nomination sparked massive protests from Democrats in Congress, who believed that Bork’s conservative voting record and opposition to the Civil Rights Act and contraception and abortion issues would usher in a highly conservative era in the Court.
At the time, the then-Sen. Biden chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, the body in the Senate in charge of leading Supreme Court confirmation hearings. After initially supporting Bork, Biden changed his mind.
“In 1983 there was a Harvard student making the constitutional rights for gay marriage. I’m going to quote directly, ‘Human rights radiates from the constitution, shedding light on the central values of freedom and equality,'” Biden told gay marriage group Freedom to Marry in New York.
“That was the basis of which I took on Judge Bork,” Biden said.
Biden’s opposition to Bork helped get the ball rolling for Justice Anthony Kennedy — who wrote the majority opinion in last month’s case — to be appointed to the Supreme Court.
“I hadn’t thought about it until I saw your comments,” Biden said. “We started the debate in the opening round and I said “I’m going to characterise your position, and you tell me if I’m wrong. I said do you believe that all the rights that i have a s a human being emirate from the constitution?”
As then-Biden intern Jeffery Rosen notes, the future vice president refused to level ad-hominem attacks against Bork as other Democrats were doing. Instead, Biden used the Senate confirmation hearing to focus on Bork’s conservative opinions. Among other things, he cited Bork’s support of a law that made birth control illegal and his opinion that individuals don’t have a right to privacy.
The hearings themselves helped bring down Bork’s confirmation. As NPR notes, Bork did not come off as a curious, respected Yale law professor. His appearance was dour and his testimony was uninspiring — when questioned by a sympathetic Republican senator about why he wanted to join the Court, Bork replied that it would be “an intellectual feast.”
“He looked and talked like a man who would throw the book at you — and maybe the whole country,” Washington Post television critic Tom Shales said of Bork.
After Bork’s nomination was scuttled, President Ronald Reagan appointed the more moderate Kennedy. In introducing Kennedy, Reagan emphasised that he ”seems to be popular with many senators of varying political persuasions,” according to The New York Times.
Kennedy has become a key swing voter who often sides with the conservative justices, but has cast key votes in gay-rights cases. In 2013, Kennedy voted to overturn the Defence of Marriage Act. And on Friday, he cemented his gay-rights legacy by casting the deciding vote that legalised gay marriage nationwide.
Biden celebrated the Kennedy-led decision on Friday, saying the day would be one for “history to remember.”
“This day is for history to remember as one where, as a nation, our laws finally recognise that all people should be treated with respect and dignity — and that all marriages, at their root, are defined by unconditional love,” Biden said in a statement.
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