Jurist recalls mom’s legacy
Nominee’s mother had a high-profile political career.
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.”
Anne Gorsuch prepares to testify before a U.S. House subcommittee on reauthorization of the Clean Air Act in May 1982.
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.