But Bork, despite his standing in the judicial and academic community, is perhaps best known among the general public for a letter he wrote as the Justice Department's solicitor general on a Saturday night in October, 1973, on the orders of President Richard M. Nixon.
In that letter, he fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre, a crucial development in the Watergate scandal, which led to Nixon's resignation less than nine months later.
Bork has said he took the step, as acting attorney general, because the firings never threatened the Watergate investigation and that, if he had quit rather than obey Nixon, the Justice Department would have been crippled by mass resignations.
Senators said the confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee are certain to delve into Bork's Watergate role, though the sessions are likely also to consider the opinions he has issued during his five years on the federal appeals court.
Kennedy Is Opposed
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, was definitive in his judgment: "The man who fired Archibald Cox does not deserve to sit on the Supreme Court of the United States. He stands for an extremist view of the Constitution."
"Robert Bork's America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens' doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution," Kennedy said.
Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), while expressing "serious reservations" about Bork's record, said: "He seems to have many of the qualifications one would want in a Supreme Court justice, but a deeply held ideological attitude constitutes a conflict of interest. . . . And that, to me, can be disqualifying."
But Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), saying that "ideology should not be the sole determining factor," praised Bork's legal background.
Thurmond's Lukewarm Praise
Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was lukewarm in his praise. He had sought a Southerner for the bench and had met twice with Reagan to urge the nomination of William W. Wilkins, an appeals court judge from South Carolina.
Thurmond predicted that Bork would not be "as controversial as people think." If the Senate acts promptly, he said, Bork could be confirmed by the scheduled October recess of Congress.
And Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a committee member who was on the White House lists of potential nominees, said Bork is "one of the quintessential judges in the country, one of the top legal theorists." But the senator predicted "a bruising, hard set of proceedings" and expressed the hope that "we can hold the Republicans together on the committee."
Lobbying Groups' Stance
Outside the Senate, a variety of lobbying groups made it clear that they would battle the nomination, and the National Abortion Rights Action League, a pro-choice group, called the nomination "the greatest threat to the right to safe and legal abortions."
But a senior White House official said: "What emerges is a picture of opposition based on conservative issues but not based on the man and his ability."
The concerns expressed by Bork's critics notwithstanding, Arthur S. Miller, an expert on constitutional law and the Supreme Court who is a professor emeritus at the George Washington University National Law Center, suggested that Bork's impact on the court could be limited.
"The ability of one judge to sway another judge is not that great. They are very independent-minded people," he said.
Since Powell announced his retirement Friday, Bork was the leading candidate for the post, a senior White House official said.
'No. 1 Name on the List'
"In terms of his judicial record and rapport with the legal Establishment and members of Congress and his conservative philosophy, he was probably far and away the No. 1 name on the list," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A White House official said Bork decided to remain mute during the announcement because "what you don't say you don't have to explain in the confirmation process."
Staff writers Josh Getlin in Washington and Robert Shogan in Houston contributed to this story.