Washington — When President Reagan tapped federal appeals court Judge Robert H. Bork for the United States Supreme Court, conservatives and liberals mobilized their pro and con forces. The contending groups that will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week have already displayed, in the media and through the mails, most of their arguments. Each side depicts the other as extremists bent on twisting the law to implement their own social, political, and economic agenda.
The liberal public-interest group Common Cause - whose board chairman, Archibald Cox, was fired by Mr. Bork in 1973 from his position as Watergate special prosecutor - issued a stinging report attacking the nominee's judicial philosophy. The report says the framers of the Constitution and its amendments intended the Supreme Court to play a central role in protecting the liberties and rights of individuals.
``Judge Bork's philosophy would have prevented recognition of many of these claims, involving numerous rights we all now take for granted,'' says Common Cause. ``The heart of the issue presented by President Reagan's nomination is whether the role of the Supreme Court, as we have understood it for half a century, should be radically changed.''
The conservative Washington Legal Foundation counters with a report saying the Supreme Court has been ``dominated for the last three decades by ideologically-minded Justices who have stolen away great portions of the Constitution in an illegitimate use of legislative power.''
The American Conservative Union's Daniel L. Casey articulates that view: ``The hard left in this country has worked feverishly to abolish the death penalty, to expand so-called criminal rights, handcuff our law-enforcement officials, and remove decency and morality from control of the people. They feel threatened by Bork, who believes the role of a judge is to interpret and not make law.''
Morton Halperin of the American Civil Liberties Union says Bork's statements to the Senate panel on sex discrimination under the 14th Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and First Amendment protection of advocacy of dissenting ideas are ``fundamentally inconsistent'' with his recently stated views.
ACLU executive director Ira Glasser says Judge Bork is ``well outside the mainstream of conservative judicial philosophy.
``If Robert Bork's views were to prevail, the most critical function of the Supreme Court, the protection of individual rights, would atrophy.''
Bork said for the first time during the hearings that he now accepts a Supreme Court decision barring prosecution for speech advocating acts like overthrow of the government.
Ricki Seidman, legal director for People for the American Way, a nonpartisan constitutional liberties organization, says that Bork ``has become a confirmation-day moderate. We can't know what he thinks, and confirming him is a great risk.''
Nan Aron, chairwoman of the Alliance for Justice, an association of public-interest law groups, says the ``reasonable basis test'' Bork advances in gender cases is a 19th century standard currently not applied by courts.
``He would take us back to a time when the court made a distinction, resulting in fewer protections, not more,'' Ms. Aron says. She terms this view ``a ... frightening one.''
National Organization for Women president Molly Yard calls the Bork nomination a ``state of emergency'' for women's rights.
The American Conservative Union's Mr. Casey characterizes such assertions as ``character assassination,'' adding: ``We do not expect the US Senate to cover itself with the mud being thrown at Judge Bork.''
Washington Legal Foundation counsel Mark Pestel says the record does not support the ``leftist'' contention that Bork is the enemy of minorities and women.
When Bork was serving as solicitor general in the Nixon administration, Mr. Pestel explains, he filed 19 cases with the Supreme Court arguing for increased rights and the court agreed with him in 17 of those cases.
The judge ``has responded candidly, openly and convincingly to every substantive criticism,'' says Parick B. McGuigan, legal-affairs analyst for Coalitions for America, a group coordinating lobbying efforts for Bork.
``He has been completely frank with the senators, far beyond the customary responsiveness of Supreme Court nominees,'' says Mr. McGuigan.