WASHINGTON — Robert H. Bork was extolled by former President Gerald R. Ford and others as brilliant and compassionate but denounced by opponents as biased and closed-minded today as the Senate began hearings on his nomination to the Supreme Court.
Questions about Bork's qualifications were raised by three uncommitted members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which appears to be about evenly divided on whether or not to recommend confirmation.
However, Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) repeated his intention to have the full Senate vote on the nomination. "I can assure that the nomination won't be killed by the Judiciary Committee, no matter how many senators vote against the nomination," he said.
Bork, 60, a federal appeals court judge and former law professor, listened attentively during the first 3 1/2 hours of the nationally televised and highly charged committee session, waiting his opportunity to begin what was expected to be several days of testimony.
About 350 sign-carrying, anti-Bork demonstrators rallied in a park across the street from the Senate Office Building where the hearings were being held. They listened to speakers denounce Bork's views and urge President Reagan to "try again" by withdrawing Bork's nomination and picking someone else.
In the hearing room, in an extraordinary appearance for a former President, Ford said Bork's "record has been exemplary" since he took his seat on the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals here five years ago.
With Bork seated at his side facing the committee, Ford said the nominee acted "with integrity" in 1973 when Bork carried out then-President Richard M. Nixon's order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in the so-called Saturday Night Massacre.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), leading the assault on Bork's fitness to serve on the nation's highest court, said, "In Robert Bork's America there is no room at the inn for blacks, and no place in the Constitution for women. And in our America, there should be no seat on the Supreme Court for Robert Bork."
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) sprang to Bork's defense.
"Judge Bork is experiencing the kind of innuendo and intrigue that usually accompanies a campaign for the Senate," Hatch said. "Federal judges are not politicians and ought not be judged like politicians."
Questions to Answer
Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), one of the undecided committee members, said Bork has many questions to answer.
"I am concerned about Judge Bork's past statements on civil rights and equal protection," DeConcini said. "In addition, there are questions about his integrity that must be answered," he said, citing the Saturday Night Massacre.
DeConcini also asked Ford whether the former President had read the judge's opinions and other writings. Ford said he had read "a limited number" of Bork's writings, relying largely on analyses of the nominee's views provided by others.
Two other uncommitted Judiciary Committee members, Sens. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) also said they have reservations about Bork.