WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, his temper flaring for the first time in three days of testimony, today denied having broken the law during the Watergate scandal and clashed with liberal senators who accused him of favoring presidential powers.
Tempers flared for the first time in three days of Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings during a heated exchange between Bork and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), two of his most implacable foes.
"The American people rely on the Congress to protect them from abuse of power by the executive branch," Kennedy said. "But . . . you always seem to side with the President. . . . "
"You broke the law in Watergate when you obeyed President (Richard M.) Nixon and fired (special prosecutor) Archibald Cox," Kennedy said.
The senator then accused Bork of siding with the President on a number of laws passed by Congress but viewed by the Reagan Administration as unconstitutional, among them the War Powers Act, a law appointing special prosecutors and one compelling the government to seek a court warrant before wiretapping an American suspected of spying for a foreign power.
"We can't have (Atty. Gen.) Ed Meese running around with unlimited power to put wiretaps on churches," Kennedy said, referring to the so-called sanctuary movement in which some churches have sheltered people fleeing from El Salvador to the United States.
Cites Iran Scandal
Kennedy cited the Iran- contra scandal and said he believed that it is "fundamental to the rule of law that the President should obey the same laws."
Under Bork's logic, Kennedy said, Bork could defend Reagan's right to send arms to the Nicaraguan contra rebels during a congressional ban "or even selling arms to the ayatollah in Iran."
After listening to Kennedy for several minutes, the 60-year-old judge interrupted: "Senator Kennedy, I must say I think those are most unfair characterizations of my views. I hardly know where to start (to rebut them).
"I did not break the law in Watergate," Bork began--only to be interrupted by Metzenbaum, who repeated a statement he has made each of the last two days of the hearings: that a court had ruled Bork's action in firing Cox illegal.
That appeared to further incense Bork, and, showing the first flash of anger in the three days of hearings, he raised his voice and shot back: "That was a vacated opinion."
Bork contends that because the ruling was vacated, or declared moot, there remains no current charge of illegality against him.
Metzenbaum, Kennedy and Bork all began talking at once and Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. had to bang his gavel several times to silence them.
Key Court Vacancy
Today's outbursts highlighted the almost unprecedented controversy surrounding Bork's nomination to a key Supreme Court vacancy that has sparked one of the most bitter public debates in decades.
With the nine-member court closely divided between conservative and more liberal justices, Bork, if confirmed, could provide a crucial swing vote, giving President Reagan the chance to place his conservative stamp on America's social agenda for a generation to come.
The 14-member committee and the Senate, both of which must vote on the nomination, appear to be evenly divided over Bork.
Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a staunch Bork supporter, called the charges against the judge, "scurrilous, libelous, scandalous."
Hatch also defended Bork's record on protecting civil rights and those of women and said he is "at least as sensitive" on those issues as retiring Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., whom Bork would replace, if confirmed.