WASHINGTON — President Reagan picked Robert H. Bork, a staunchly conservative appeals court judge, for a Supreme Court seat today, risking a bruising showdown with the Democratic-ruled Senate over his confirmation.
If seated, Bork could be instrumental in helping alter some of the court's landmark decisions, such as a woman's right to an abortion and the principle of affirmative action.
Announcing Bork's selection, Reagan praised him as "a premier constitutional authority" and said, "His outstanding intellect and unrivaled scholarly credentials are reflected in his thoughtful examination of the broad, fundamental issues of our times."
The 60-year-old Bork was the top choice of hard-line conservatives to succeed Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., 79, who announced last Friday that he was leaving the bench because of health problems and his age.
Fired Archibald Cox
Bork is best known nationally for carrying out then-President Richard M. Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" order in 1973 to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox after two higher officials refused and resigned. At the time, Bork was Nixon's solicitor general.
Reagan called on the Senate to confirm Bork before the court's new term in October, but Democrats served notice that they want to examine his qualifications thoroughly.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, said, "The Senate is going to carry out its constitutional role . . . with probably more scrutiny than anything this decade."
Leahy said he could not envision Bork being confirmed before Congress' August recess. He said that with Bork on the nation's highest court, "his vote would determine that abortions would not be legal today. I think we have to take a look at that."
Bork once said that the Supreme Court's 1973 decision legalizing abortion was "a classic instance" of the court imposing its morality on local jurisdictions. He said abortion should be a matter of local control.
Privately, White House officials said they expect a tough fight in getting Bork's nomination through the Judiciary Committee, and then expect a filibuster from opponents on the Senate floor.
In addition to opposing abortion, Bork has complained that Supreme Court decisions have extended constitutional protections and federal authority far beyond their proper bounds.
In a 1982 speech, he sharply criticized high court decisions on abortion, sexual freedom and many types of free expression.
"The court responds to the press and law school faculties," Bork said. "The personnel of the media are heavily left-liberal. Their values are quite egalitarian and permissive."
Took No Questions
He stood next to Reagan, without speaking, as the President announced his nomination in the White House press briefing room. Reagan also refused to take questions.
Reagan discussed the court vacancy earlier in the day during a meeting with Vice President George Bush, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and Deputy Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein. He also met briefly with Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Any nomination for the Supreme Court is viewed as a major decision for a President, but this one took on added significance because of the pivotal role Powell had played on the court.
In many cases, Powell was the swing vote in 5-4 decisions, including the landmark 1973 ruling affirming a woman's consitutional right to an abortion, as well as affirmative action programs and separation of church and state.