Gor­such vows to be in­de­pen­dent voice on high court,

Gor­such says he has tried to be ‘neu­tral and in­de­pen­dent.’

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Mark Sher­man and Erica Werner

Supreme Court nom­i­nee Neil Gor­such pledged to be in­de­pen­dent or “hang up the robe” as the U.S. Sen­ate be­gan ran­corous hear­ings Mon­day on Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s con­ser­va­tive pick to fill a Supreme Court seat that has been va­cant for more than a year.

Gor­such sought to take the edge off Demo­cratic com­plaints that he has fa­vored the wealthy and pow­er­ful in more than 10 years as a fed­eral judge. The 49-yearold Coloradan told the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee he has tried to be a “neu­tral and in­de­pen­dent” judge and has ruled both for and against dis­abled students, pris­on­ers and work­ers al­leg­ing civil rights vi­o­la­tions.

“But my de­ci­sions have never re­flected a judg­ment about the peo­ple be­fore me, only my best judg­ment about the law and facts at is­sue in each par­tic­u­lar case,” Gor­such said. That was his open­ing state­ment a day ahead of ex­pected pointed ques­tion­ing from com­mit­tee Democrats.

A Supreme Court con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing is a ma­jor oc­ca­sion on Capi­tol Hill — the last one was in 2010 — but Mon­day’s was over­shad­owed by a sep­a­rate event in the Capi­tol com­plex. On the House side, FBI Di­rec­tor James Comey was tes­ti­fy­ing that the bureau is in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian med­dling in last year’s elec­tion and pos­si­ble links and co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Rus­sia and as­so­ciates of Trump.

Blend­ing the two hear­ings, Demo­cratic Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal of Con­necti­cut re­ferred to “a loom­ing con­sti­tu­tional cri­sis” that the Supreme Court might need to re­solve. The court’s eight cur­rent jus­tices are roughly di­vided ide­o­log­i­cally be­tween con­ser­va­tives and lib­er­als.

The Rus­sian story line as well as Trump’s ver­bal at­tacks on fed­eral judges both dur­ing the cam­paign and as pres­i­dent have fed into Demo­cratic ef­forts to force Gor­such to break pub­licly with the man who nom­i­nated him. Gor­such al­ready has told some sen­a­tors in pri­vate meet­ings that he found the crit­i­cism of the judges dis­heart­en­ing. But Blu­men­thal said the nom­i­nee needs to make a state­ment “pub­licly and ex­plic­itly and di­rectly.”

For their part, Repub­li­cans uni­formly por­trayed Gor­such as a ge­nial, prin­ci­pled judge whose qual­i­fi­ca­tions make him em­i­nently suit­able for the na­tion’s high­est court. “I’m look­ing for a judge, not an ide­o­logue,” Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana said.

Ac­tual ques­tion­ing is to be­gin Tues­day. Com­mit­tee Chair­man Chuck Grass­ley, an Iowa Repub­li­can, said he ex­pects a com­mit­tee vote on Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion on April 3, which would al­low the full Sen­ate to take up the nom­i­na­tion that week. Gor­such could be on the bench by the time the jus­tices meet for a round of ar­gu­ments in mid-April.

Democrats, un­der in­tense pres­sure from lib­eral base vot­ers hor­ri­fied by the Trump pres­i­dency, en­tered the hear­ings di­vided over how hard to fight Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion given that the mild-man­nered ju­rist is no right-wing bomb thrower and is widely ex­pected to win con­fir­ma­tion in the end.

Even while in­sist­ing they would eval­u­ate Gor­such fairly, sev­eral spoke angrily about the treat­ment of Judge Mer­rick Gar­land, Obama’s Supreme Court nom­i­nee, who was de­nied even a hear­ing for 10 months last year by Sen­ate Repub­li­cans. The Democrats also took shots at Trump, and crit­i­cized the fact that Gor­such ap­peared on a list of po­ten­tial Supreme Court nom­i­nees vet­ted by the Fed­er­al­ist So­ci­ety and Her­itage Foun­da­tion.

“Sen­ate Repub­li­cans made a big show last year about re­spect­ing the voice of the Amer­i­can peo­ple in this process,” said Sen. Pa­trick Leahy, D-Vt. “Now they are ar­gu­ing that the Sen­ate should rub­ber stamp a nom­i­nee se­lected by ex­treme in­ter­est groups and nom­i­nated by a pres­i­dent who lost the pop­u­lar vote by nearly 3 mil­lion votes.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., re­peated a com­ment by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus last month that Gor­such “rep­re­sents the type of judge that has the vi­sion of Don­ald Trump.”

“I want to hear from you why Mr. Priebus would say that,” Durbin said to Gor­such. “Most Amer­i­cans ques­tion whether we need a Supreme Court jus­tice with the vi­sion of Don­ald Trump.”

GOP sen­a­tors dis­puted the Demo­cratic crit­i­cism.

“If you be­lieve this has been a great plan to get a Trump nom­i­nee on the court you had to be­lieve Trump was go­ing to win to be­gin with. I didn’t be­lieve it,” said Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham, R-S.C. “I’m try­ing to hear some­one over there tell me why he’s not qual­i­fied.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, sug­gested Gor­such should dis­re­gard Democrats’ at­tempts to draw him out on in­di­vid­ual top­ics.

“You’re not a politi­cian run­ning for elec­tion, judge, as you know,” Cornyn said. “I would en­cour­age my col­leagues to care­fully con­sider the nom­i­nee on the mer­its and noth­ing else.”

With his wife, Louise, sit­ting just be­hind him, Gor­such made re­peated ref­er­ences to ju­di­cial in­de­pen­dence and hu­mil­ity.

“Th­ese days we some­times hear judges cyn­i­cally de­scribed as politi­cians in robes, seek­ing to en­force their own pol­i­tics rather than striv­ing to ap­ply the law im­par­tially. If I thought that were true, I’d hang up the robe. But I just don’t think that’s what a life in the law is about,” Gor­such said.

He made a brief ref­er­ence to his mother, Anne Gor­such Bur­ford, who had a con­tro­ver­sial run as ad­min­is­tra­tor of the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency early in the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. “She taught me that head­lines are fleet­ing; courage lasts,” Gor­such said.

Sev­eral of the more lib­eral Sen­ate Democrats have al­ready an­nounced plans to op­pose Gor­such and seek to block his nom­i­na­tion from com­ing to a fi­nal vote. But Repub­li­cans could re­spond by elim­i­nat­ing the 60-vote fil­i­buster thresh­old now in place for Supreme Court nom­i­na­tions, and with it any Demo­cratic lever­age to in­flu­ence the next Supreme Court fight.

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Supreme Court Jus­tice nom­i­nee Neil Gor­such is sworn in on Capi­tol Hill in Washington on Mon­day dur­ing his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

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