Trump, GOP face fresh test to shape high court
When Judge Neil Gorsuch arrives on Capitol Hill this morning to begin his confirmation hearings for a seat on the Supreme Court, he will give President Donald Trump his first chance to make a lasting imprint on the federal judiciary — and Republicans a fresh test to work their will now that they control all of Washington’s levers of power.
Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge from Colorado, was promoted by conservative legal activists because of his credentials, a decade of right-of-center rulings and his allegiance to the same brand of constitutional interpretation employed by the late justice he would replace, Antonin Scalia.
“Single best thing the president’s done,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a frequent Trump foil who predicted Republican unity on the matter and an easy victory for the president following the string of controversies that Trump has wrought since he took office.
All of that also sets up a stark dilemma for Senate Democrats. Today brings their newest opportunity since the confirmation hearings of Trump’s Cabinet to take a stand against a young administration that has horrified liberal Americans with efforts to strip away provisions of the Affordable Care Act, impose an entry ban on some immigrants and deeply cut federal agencies.
The left also remains angry about a Supreme Court seat that has sat vacant since Scalia died 13 months ago, after which Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., decided to block a hearing for President Barack Obama’s selection for the seat, Judge Merrick Garland of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
Gorsuch seemed to forecast what might await him from Democrats in a 2002 column he wrote lamenting the state of the Supreme Court nomination process: “When a favored candidate is voted down for lack of sufficient political sympathy to those in control, grudges are held for years, and retaliation is guaranteed.”
Yet Democrats are divided about how to take on a genial jurist who has made few waves in the weeks since Trump nominated him and he began meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Gorsuch “is a bit of a puzzle,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’re going to try to put those pieces together so that the puzzle is complete and we have an understanding of what kind of a fifth vote will be going on the court.”
Asked about what more she hopes to learn about Gorsuch’s stances, Feinstein said: “Voting rights. Right to choose. Guns. Corporate dollars in elections. Worker safety. Ability of federal agencies to regulate. All of the environmental issues — water, air.”
Senators and their staffs are also examining Gorsuch’s role as a high-ranking official in the U.S. Justice Department at the time the George W. Bush administration was dealing with Guantanamo Bay detainees and reports of torture.
A new trove of materials released this weekend show Gorsuch playing a central role in coordinating legal and legislative strategy, but portraying himself as reconciling the many opinions of those in the administration rather than driving policy.
“I am but the scrivener looking for language that might please everybody,” he wrote in one email.
Four days of hearings are set to begin today, when Gorsuch will sit and listen for several hours as members of the Judiciary Committee read opening statements. He is poised to deliver his opening statement on Monday afternoon, giving senators and the nation an early indication of how he might serve on the court.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Gorsuch is set to face at least 50 minutes of questioning by each member of the panel. The proceedings are expected to conclude Thursday with a panel of witnesses speaking for or against Gorsuch.
Some of the issues that normally animate Supreme Court confirmation hearings won’t depend upon Gorsuch. Decisions from last term showed there was still support on the court for limited affirmative action in higher education, for instance. The majority that found a constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry remains. And whatever Gorsuch’s position on abortion rights, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s vote to strike down a Texas law last year reaffirmed the court’s rulings that say government may not pass restrictions that unduly burden a woman’s right to an abortion.
Judge Neil Gorsuch is nominated for the Supreme Court.