Ju­rist re­calls mom’s legacy

Nom­i­nee’s mother had a high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By John Frank and Mark K. Matthews

He cam­paigned door to door in Den­ver. He at­tended the gov­er­nor’s Hal­loween party. And he moved to Wash­ing­ton when Ron­ald Rea­gan won the White House.

U.S. Supreme Court nom­i­nee Neil Gor­such spent for­ma­tive years in the shadow of his mother’s high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal ca­reer — from her days in the Colorado leg­is­la­ture as a mem­ber of the “House Cra­zies” to her tem­pes­tu­ous ten­ure and ouster as En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor.

The ex­pe­ri­ences guided his ide­o­log­i­cal com­pass, and Anne Gor­such Bur­ford’s friends and former col­leagues see her in­flu­ence echoed in his ca­reer.

The same words that Gor­such’s ad­vo­cates are us­ing to de­scribe the 10th Cir­cuit ap­peals judge be­fore his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings Mon­day once show­ered his late mother: bril­liant, hard­work­ing, de­tail-ori­ented, fair and con­ser­va­tive. The crit­i­cisms are ex­pected to sound the same too: elite and ide­o­log­i­cal.

But where Bur­ford’s style of­ten came across as brash and un­com­pro­mis­ing, earn­ing her the nick­names “Ice Queen” and the “Wicked Witch of the West,” her old­est son is more of­ten de­scribed as re­served and open-minded.

“She was smart, she was in­tense, she had a great sense of hu­mor and she was a ter­rific per­son to have a beer with or have a chat with,” said Jim Lyons, a vet­eran Colorado at­tor­ney who worked a case with Neil Gor­such in the mid-1990s and knew his mother.

“I know he has the same sense of in­tegrity,” Lyons added. “I know he has the same ex­cep­tional in­tel­lect.”

Like his mother 36 years ear­lier, Gor­such aims to charm the U.S. sen­a­tors at his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ings, even as he looks for his mo­ment in the Wash­ing­ton spot­light to take a dif­fer­ent path for­ward.

Gor­such (pro­nounced Gore­sitch) is ex­pected to face sig­nif­i­cant scru­tiny as Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nee for the na­tion’s high­est court with skep­ti­cal Demo­cratic law­mak­ers de­ter­mined to learn more about the val­ues that in­form his think­ing and how he may rule on the bench.

His mother’s po­lit­i­cal record of­fers plenty of in­sights, with as many par­al­lels as con­tra­dic­tions.

Most of the at­ten­tion on Gor­such’s mother so far has fo­cused on her 22 months as EPA chief — a pe­riod marked by ques­tions about cozy re­la­tions with pol­luters, a scan­dal in­volv­ing the Su­per­fund cleanup pro­gram and a con­tempt-of-Congress charge for with­hold­ing doc­u­ments at the re­quest of the White House, which even­tu­ally led to her res­ig­na­tion.

Her record in Colorado is less prom­i­nent, hid­den in the base­ment of the Capi­tol, where leg­is­la­tion from the era lives on mi­cro­fiche, re­duced to a size smaller than a stamp, de­spite its im­por­tant legacy.

The “le­gal brains”

The daugh­ter of a sur­geon and one of seven chil­dren, Anne Irene McGill grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Colorado law school and passed the bar exam at age 21, mar­ried an­other lawyer, David Gor­such, and trav­eled to In­dia as a Ful­bright scholar.

A lawyer for tele­phone com­pany Moun­tain Bell who had also worked as a deputy district at­tor­ney, Gor­such en­tered the po­lit­i­cal arena in 1976 and de­feated an in­flu­en­tial in­cum­bent in a well-todo Den­ver district that strad­dled the cur­rent Cherry Creek and Hill­top neigh­bor­hoods. Months ear­lier, her old­est of three chil­dren, Neil McGill Gor­such, had turned 9.

A long­time friend of Neil Gor­such said he would tell sto­ries of go­ing door to door hand­ing out fliers with his mother dur­ing her time in the leg­is­la­ture.

“Just like Neil, she had that drive and com­mit­ment and de­ter­mi­na­tion,” said Michael Trent, a former class­mate at Ge­orge­town Prepara­tory, a Je­suit pri­vate school out­side Wash­ing­ton.

Gor­such’s younger brother re­called the same. “She took pride in hav­ing can­vassed her en­tire district,” said J.J. Gor­such, a vice pres­i­dent at a mar­ket­ing com­pany in Den­ver. “She lit­er­ally went door to door to ev­ery house­hold in her district while cam­paign­ing. And there are sto­ries of her bring­ing us along when it was inconvenient to do oth­er­wise.”

The 1976 elec­tion put the GOP back in con­trol of both leg­isla­tive cham­bers and car­ried a cadre of young con­ser­va­tives in­clud­ing Anne Gor­such into of­fice — a shift that her­alded the com­ing Rea­gan Revo­lu­tion and for­ever changed Colorado pol­i­tics.

She made an im­me­di­ate im­pres­sion at the Capi­tol, not the least of which for her like­ness to TV star Suzanne Pleshette, with her jet­black hair and pierc­ing eyes.

“Dou­ble B — beau­ti­ful and bril­liant,” is how former col­league Tom Tan­credo re­mem­bers Gor­such.

“She came in and she had taken out a long­time Demo­crat in a Demo­crat district, so every­body was pretty im­pressed,” said Tan­credo, an­other fresh­man Republi- can who sat next to Gor­such on the House floor and later served in Congress.

Her first year she served as prime spon­sor for 28 bills — 20 of which passed both cham­bers, ac­cord­ing to her of­fi­cial leg­isla­tive record. Her col­leagues and the Capi­tol press later voted her fresh­man law­maker of the year. “A hard worker who prob­a­bly pays closer at­ten­tion to the de­tails of bills than any other House mem­ber,” The Den­ver Post wrote about her in 1979, even though it soon noted her pol­i­tics hurt her im­age.

Gor­such aligned with the con­ser­va­tive law­mak­ers known as the “House Cra­zies” — a la­bel the group claimed as a badge of honor for how they up­set the mod­er­ate Repub­li­can tra­di­tion and pushed an ag­gres­sive agenda to lower taxes and cut gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions.

In her 1986 mem­oir “Are You Tough Enough?,” she called her­self “the le­gal brains of the out­fit” and touted that “we did ‘Rea­gan­ism’ in the Colorado leg­is­la­ture be­fore Rea­gan did it.”

The boast is sup­ported by her record. She au­thored a bill to re­quire more leg­isla­tive re­view of state agency rules in 1977 that drew the gov­er­nor’s veto. She joined a suc­cess­ful ef­fort to oust the in­cum­bent Repub­li­can speaker in 1979 and sup­ported Rep. Bob Bur­ford, her fu­ture hus­band who also joined the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion. And she en­gi­neered the elim­i­na­tion of the Colorado Com­mis­sion on Women, which she ar­gued was in­ef­fec­tive.

The con­ser­va­tive ap­proach won her ac­claim and crit­i­cism. A politi­cian re­called in The Wash­ing­ton Post at the time that Gor­such was “al­most para­noid about any kind of abor­tion leg­is­la­tion.”

The con­ser­va­tives’ ar­rival at the Capi­tol “re­de­fined, sort of in per­pe­tu­ity, what it meant to be a Repub­li­can in Colorado,” said Eric Son­der­mann, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst who worked for Demo­cratic Gov. Dick Lamm at the time. “It be­came much more ide­o­log­i­cal, much more small gov­ern­ment or even anti-gov­ern­ment.”

Joel He­fley, a former Repub­li­can col­league, re­mem­bers Gor­such as “not a knee-jerk con­ser­va­tive … but a think­ing con­ser­va­tive” — a qual­ity he sees in her son, who he re­calls meet­ing at the gov­er­nor’s Hal­loween party.

“I don’t think that it ap­pears that he is any­body’s man,” He­fley said. “It ap­pears to me he will weigh ev­ery de­ci­sion on what the law and the Con­sti­tu­tion is.”

A last­ing legacy

Her role in the con­ser­va­tive up­ris­ing re­ceives more at­ten­tion than one of her sig­na­ture leg­isla­tive ac­com­plish­ments: a re­write of the crim­i­nal sen­tenc­ing guide­lines in Colorado that some re­fer to as “the Gor­such law.”

She as­serted that the state’s sys­tem re­sulted in un­equal sen­tences for felony crimes, par­tic­u­larly for mi­nori­ties, be­cause judges and the pa­role board had too much dis­cre­tion.

In a House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee hear­ing in 1977, dig­i­tized from dic­ta­phone tapes of the time, Gor­such pushed to abol­ish fines as an al­ter­na­tive to in­car­cer­a­tion, ar­gu­ing that fines worked “of­ten to the best of the white-col­lar crim­i­nals and to the detri­ment of the bluecol­lar crim­i­nal.”

For some cases, her mea­sure im­posed tougher penal­ties, while in other sit­u­a­tions it al­lowed more le­niency, a com­po­nent that drew op­po­si­tion from the district at­tor­neys’ as­so­ci­a­tion at the time.

“I have al­ways been some­what hard to pi­geon­hole,” she wrote of her leg­isla­tive ten­ure.

Neil Gor­such’s rul­ings from the Den­ver-based 10th U.S. Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals in the area of crim­i­nal law are char­ac­ter­ized in a sim­i­lar man­ner. For in­stance, he ruled in fa­vor of pros­e­cu­tors and de­fen­dants in dif­fer­ent cases in­volv­ing manda­tory min­i­mum sen­tences.

“Judge Gor­such can’t be pi­geon­holed as ei­ther pro-pros­e­cu­tion or pro-de­fense,” said Peter Krumholz, a Den­ver ap­pel­late at­tor­ney, who re­viewed the nom­i­nee’s crim­i­nal law record. “He is very in­de­pen­dent and will not hes­i­tate to rule in fa­vor of a crim­i­nal de­fen­dant’s rights when he thinks it’s war­ranted by the Con­sti­tu­tion.”

A Rea­gan acolyte

Anne Gor­such de­cided against seek­ing a third term in 1980, cit­ing fam­ily rea­sons with a di­vorce on the hori­zon. At the time, po­lit­i­cal ob­servers sug­gested the women’s com­mis­sion con­tro­versy may spike her re-elec­tion.

In­stead, she emerged as a lead­ing sup­porter of Rea­gan, who counted beer mag­nate Joe Coors as a mem­ber of his “Kitchen Cab­i­net.”

The in­flu­ence of Coors and other Colorado heavy­weights helped land a hand­ful of Colorado of­fi­cials in ad­min­is­tra­tion posts, in­clud­ing Gor­such.

She first de­clined a job prospect in the De­part­ment of Jus­tice — where her son later briefly worked — and sought the top EPA post.

The U.S. Sen­ate con­firmed her ap­point­ment in May 1981 and she be­came the first woman ever to lead the agency. She mar­ried Bur­ford, the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Bureau of Land Man­age­ment di­rec­tor, in Fe­bru­ary 1983.

Neil Gor­such had a front-row seat for his mother’s term as a stu­dent at Ge­orge­town Prep. And he watched as her term sparked con­tro­versy and pres­sure mounted from en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions and Congress.

When Anne Bur­ford re­signed in March 1983, she re­counts in her book, a Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter even called the Ge­orge­town Prep head­mas­ter “to get his side of the story.”

“Neil knew from the be­gin­ning the se­ri­ous­ness of my prob­lems,” she wrote, call­ing her 15-year-old son “smart as a whip.”

“He also had an unerring sense of fair­ness,” she con­tin­ued, “as do so many peo­ple his age.”

When she re­signed, she wrote, “he was re­ally up­set.”

“You should never have re­signed,” she re­called him say­ing. “You didn’t do any­thing wrong. You only did what the pres­i­dent or­dered. Why are you quit­ting? You raised me not to be a quit­ter. Why are you a quit­ter?”

“Honey, re­lax. It isn’t ev­ery­thing it ap­pears to be,” she told him, fin­ish­ing with “I’m just fine.”

The con­ser­va­tive torch

Neil Gor­such didn’t talk much about his mother’s sit­u­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to friends and col­leagues, but his con­ser­va­tive lean­ings were not hid­den, as ev­i­denced by his year­book en­try that listed him as a founder of the “Fas­cism For­ever” club that “hap­pily jerked its knees against the in­creas­ingly ‘left-wing’ ten­den­cies of the fac­ulty.”

And his mother’s tur­moil didn’t tem­per his pub­lic sup­port for the pres­i­dent. At Columbia Univer­sity in New York, where he be­gan col­lege in 1985, he emerged as a con­ser­va­tive thought leader on the lib­eral cam­pus, writ­ing for the Fed­er­al­ist Pa­per, a pub­li­ca­tion he helped launch. His early views are re­flected decades later in his court opin­ions in which he of­ten crit­i­cizes gov­ern­ment over­reach and de­fends in­di­vid­ual pri­vacy.

Anne Bur­ford re­turned to pri­vate law prac­tice in Wash­ing­ton and Colorado by the time her son en­tered Har­vard Law School in 1988. She fo­cused on child ad­vo­cacy and worked as a guardian ad litem in Den­ver County.

Her sec­ond hus­band, a wealthy West­ern Slope rancher, filed for di­vorce in 1991 and died two years later. A le­gal dispute re­gard­ing the di­vi­sion of as­sets con­tin­ued and trav­eled all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court in 1997.

Anne Bur­ford died in 2004 of can­cer at age 62. Neil Gor­such, then a part­ner in a top-notch Wash­ing­ton law firm, soon took a job at the De­part­ment of Jus­tice be­fore be­ing named to the fed­eral bench in 2006.

The Colorado House memo­ri­al­ized Anne Bur­ford the same year, call­ing her “a tire­less ad­vo­cate of child wel­fare and a bril­liant pub­lic ser­vant.”

“She was an in­cred­i­ble ad­vo­cate for the chil­dren and fam­i­lies,” said Rep. Jerry Fran­gas, a Den­ver Demo­crat and so­cial worker who con­sid­ered her a men­tor in her later years.

Neil Gor­such’s nom­i­na­tion re­vived mem­o­ries of his mother’s legacy in Colorado, in­clud­ing for Demo­cratic Rep. Polly Baca, a former col­league who con­sid­ered her a friend even if they dis­agreed on the is­sues.

Given his mother’s lessons, Baca said she hopes it “might have molded him.”

“My hope would be that he re­mem­bers that ex­pe­ri­ence from his child­hood,” she said, “and that he would be strong enough to not fall prey to the White House as his mother did.”

Den­ver Post file

Anne Gor­such pre­pares to tes­tify be­fore a U.S. House sub­com­mit­tee on reau­tho­riza­tion of the Clean Air Act in May 1982.

Den­ver Post file

Anne Gor­such Bur­ford’s style of­ten came across as brash and un­com­pro­mis­ing, earn­ing her the nick­names “Ice Queen” and the “Wicked Witch of the West.” Her old­est son, Neil Gor­such, is more of­ten de­scribed as re­served and open-minded.

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