Hearing begins for justice pick
Gorsuch asserts impartiality
WASHINGTON — Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch pledged to be independent or “hang up the robe” as the U.S. Senate began 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, in a 13-minute introductory address, 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-year-old Coloradan told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has ruled for prisoners, disabled students, illegal migrants, the rich and the poor, “and against such persons, too.”
“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,” he said.
Questioning is to begin today. Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said he expects a committee vote on Gorsuch’s nomination to be held April 3, which would allow the full Senate to take up the nomination that week. This week’s proceedings are expected to conclude Thursday with a panel of witnesses speaking for or against Gorsuch.
Monday’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing — the first since 2010 — occurred while the House heard testimony from FBI Director James Comey 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 criticism of 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.
Republicans cheered Gorsuch on Monday, acknowledging the strong Democratic criticism to come but adding that the nomination came with broad public support.
“This will be more of an ordeal than for your last appointment,” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, counseled Gorsuch as he read his opening statement.
Democrats, under intense pressure from liberal-base voters who oppose the Trump presidency, entered the hearing divided over how hard to fight Gorsuch’s nomination given that the jurist has not displayed hard-line leanings and is widely expected to win confirmation in the end, one way or another.
Even while insisting that they would evaluate Gorsuch fairly, several spoke angrily about the treatment of Judge Merrick Garland, former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, who was denied even a hearing last year by Senate Republicans. The Democrats also took shots at Trump himself, and they criticized the fact that Gorsuch appeared on a list of potential Supreme Court nominees vetted by the Federalist Society and the 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.”
Republican 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,” Graham said of Gorsuch.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested that Gorsuch 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, and dozens of relatives, friends and associates nearby, 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 contentious run as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency early in Ronald Reagan’s administration.
“She taught me that headlines are fleeting; courage lasts,” Gorsuch said.
Democrats signaled Monday that they will question Gorsuch on several fronts.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., told the Senate Judiciary Committee that she would ask Gorsuch to clarify his beliefs on abortion rights and gun rights — two issues on which he’s never ruled, but issues that he has mentioned in passing in other legal opinions, she said.
She said she takes issue with Gorsuch’s originalist views on the Constitution because “if we were to dogmatically adhere to originalist interpretations, then we would still have segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage. Women wouldn’t be entitled to equal protection under the law, and government discrimination against [gay, bisexual and transgender] Americans would be permitted.”
Durbin and Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said they would push Gorsuch to clarify his views on religious freedoms and work. Blumenthal said he planned to draw out the nominee on Trump’s “vicious” attacks on federal judges.
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 to a Democratic delay 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.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule, when invoked, requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted with the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.
Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch arrives Monday on Capitol Hill for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Charles Grassley (back to camera), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, leads Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch in taking an oath Monday before Gorsuch addressed lawmakers at his confirmation hearing.