WASHINGTON — Griffin B. Bell, attorney general under President Jimmy Carter, today backed Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, calling him "conservative but . . . principled."
Bell, the second top legal official of the Carter Administration to support Bork, rhetorically asked the Senate Judiciary Committee:
"If we don't get Judge Bork, who will we get?"
Bell testified after former Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D-Mo.) urged his former colleagues to reject Bork because, Eagleton said, his views on presidential powers "are vintage George III" and in effect would close the courthouse door to Congress in any clash with the President.
Eagleton testified that in disputes over the use of military forces, foreign intelligence surveillance and investigations by a special prosecutor, Bork believes that "it's all up to the President."
'Wouldn't Let Good Man Go'
Bell's testimony followed last week's appearance by Carter's White House counsel, Lloyd N. Cutler, in favor of the nominee.
Now an Atlanta attorney, Bell said he wants a Supreme Court justice who would "know what the Constitution means," and told senators that that is Bork's strength.
He cautioned senators, several of whom have criticized Bork's writings, that "it's easy to get someone who's never written anything," but added: "We want somebody who's written a lot and said a lot. I wouldn't let a good man go until I knew who was coming down the line."
Eagleton pointed out that Bork, now a federal appellate judge in Washington, once wrote in an opinion that courts should "renounce outright" Congress' right to challenge the President in court.
Eagleton insisted that Bork fails to recognize that the Founding Fathers had decided that "powers relating to war and use of military forces are shared powers between the President and Congress."
'When it's a dispute between the President and Congress, where Judge Bork is concerned, the President is always right, and Congress should always be deprived of the power to challenge him in court, even in matters of deep institutional conflict," Eagleton said.
Without the right to sue, Eagleton said, Congress' only recourse if a President failed to follow the law would be impeachment.
Meanwhile, undecided Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said today that the most important question before the Senate is whether its members can believe Bork when he says he'll respect legal precedents.
Specter, interviewed on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," noted that many of Bork's writings differ sharply from established doctrines on free speech and equal protection but that the nominee has claimed he won't seek to overturn the precedents on such matters.
"It's a judgment call for the Senate as to whether we can accept his assurance," Specter said. "He's a very powerful intellect, and we have to really evaluate whether we can accept those assurances against the backdrop of a philosophy to the contrary."