It was March of 1988, and hundreds of law students from across the country — including me — were gathered for the Federalist Society’s annual national student symposium. Many of us who descended that year on the University of Virginia Law School had attended the student conferences of years past, but this one was palpably different. There was high electricity in the air, and it was in anticipation of the event’s banquet speaker, Judge Robert Bork.
Just several months earlier, in the fall of 1987, the Senate had declined to confirm Judge Bork to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. Most of the students who were seated in their Sunday best at the banquet had been glued to their television sets for at least some part of the confirmation hearings, which spanned 12 days and ironically included September 17, the date on which the Constitution was adopted in 1787 in Philadelphia. The hearings became a battleground for the defense of judicial restraint, a jurisprudence based on the Constitution’s text and original meaning, and the principles of limited, constitutional government.
The Federalist banquet was our opportunity to thank Judge Bork for his courage during the confirmation process. As he ascended the stage to address the crowd, the reaction was nothing less than overwhelming. Deafening and extraordinarily sustained applause, and ovations and cheers, consumed the room.
The message from all of us students could not have been clearer — thank you, Judge Bork, not only for what you endured in the Supreme Court confirmation process, but also for a life of service in defense of the rule of law. It was the kind of reception one receives at the twilight or conclusion of a distinguished career of service. Little did we know that, in the years to come, Judge Bork would open a new and exciting chapter in his life that was just as impactful as his earlier tours of duty, if not more.
In the years following his failed Supreme Court bid, Judge Bork came to be seen as one of the standard-bearers of the rule of law by a generation of young lawyers and law students who are only just beginning to make their presence felt in the worlds of law and politics. With each blockbuster book — from The Tempting of America, to Slouching Towards Gomorrah, to Coercing Virtue — the number of young law students and lawyers committed to the Founding principles has swelled. With each speech, op-ed, and interview, a growing number of young Americans have been introduced to Judge Bork’s amazing life of service — from his distinction as the greatest solicitor general of the modern era to his integrity as a teacher and judge committed to the pursuit of truth.
It will take some time for us to know whether Judge Bork’s efforts to preserve our Constitution and the rule of law for future generations will succeed. Judge Bork was a man of ideas, and any philosophical or intellectual enterprise to evangelize hearts and minds takes time to play out. Judge Bork himself was quite skeptical about whether, despite his and others’ best efforts, our country could restore the Western legal and cultural tradition. But we do know this — that if our country does return to traditional legal and constitutional principles, it will be in no small measure because of the conservative intellectual movement that is a direct outgrowth of Judge Bork’s perseverance, persuasiveness, and prowess. That movement would not have the strength and quality that it has today without Judge Bork’s moral and intellectual leadership, as well as the kindness, humor, and decency he showed and that touched so many. Today, we students from 1988 — and many, many more who have followed us — are thankful to Judge Bork for having continued a life of service in defense of the Constitution and rule of law to the very end, with a success, breadth, depth, and impact we never could have envisioned.
Leonard Leo serves as the executive vice president of the Federalist Society.