Robert Bork and Originalism

News is breaking this morning that jurist Robert Bork has passed away. Many people remember him for his failed nomination to the Supreme Court. Conservatives remember him as an ardent originalist. What separated him from so many other jurists was essentially a hermeneutical point. In a 2005 article for The Wall Street Journal, Bork boiled it down:

Originalism simply means that the judge must discern from the relevant materials–debates at the Constitutional Convention, the Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers, newspaper accounts of the time, debates in the state ratifying conventions, and the like–the principles the ratifiers understood themselves to be enacting.

The remainder of the task is to apply those principles to unforeseen circumstances, a task that law performs all the time. Any philosophy that does not confine judges to the original understanding inevitably makes the Constitution the plaything of willful judges.

-Robert Bork, “Slouching towards Miers,” WSJ (October 19, 2005)

Robert Bork was 85 years old. RIP.


  • Don Johnson

    This is also true for the Bible, first reading assessing the original author’s intent and then and only then trying to apply it today. I also think there can be a 2nd possible reading before application, knowing that Christ is the goal of Scripture canonically.

  • James Stanton

    I suppose originalism is what led him to conclude that the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional and that poll taxes were constitutional. I’m not sure what led him to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor at Nixon’s demand.

  • dr. james willingham

    Hmmmm! Originalists might be a good term for those sovereign grace believers who are both descendants and successors to the original founders of the Particular/Regular/Separate/United/Missionary/Southern Baptists of America. It might be helpful as over against the traditionalists who are johnny-come-latelys to the scene, being encouraged to come by the originalists in the union of Regulars and Separates in Virginia in 1787

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