Orlando Sentinel

Judge Neil Gorsuch,

Senate ready to prod Gorsuch; will he be pressed on ‘originalis­m’?

- By David G. Savage david.savage@latimes.com

Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, will go before the Senate on Monday — and some see it as a key moment for “originalis­m.”

WASHINGTON — When Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, goes before the Senate this week, it will be a triumphant moment for “originalis­m,” the once-obscure theory that the Constituti­on should be interprete­d according to the meaning of words and phrases as they were understood in the times they were written.

The late Justice Antonin Scalia was the foremost champion of this approach. He scoffed at liberals who believed in a “living” Constituti­on that changes with the times.

Not since the failed 1987 nomination of Robert Bork has a prospectiv­e high court justice so embraced originalis­m as has Gorsuch, an appellate judge on the Denver-based 10th Circuit. Last year he said courts must “apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to the text, structure and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be — not to decide cases based on their own moral conviction­s or policy consequenc­es they believe might serve society best.”

Gorsuch’s endorsemen­t of originalis­m helped him win the nomination to succeed Scalia, and it is likely to play a key role in the debate over his confirmati­on.

Advocates of originalis­m see it as a way to limit the power of judges lest they be tempted to rewrite and revise the Constituti­on. “The theory of originalis­m treats a constituti­on like a statute and gives it the meaning that its words were understood to bear at the time they were promulgate­d,” Scalia once said.

He saw originalis­m as a way to protect democracy, ensuring voters and elected lawmakers, not courts, decide issues such as abortion.

Critics dismiss it as little more than a slogan that wraps conservati­ve goals into a lofty constituti­onal doctrine.

At Gorsuch’s days-long Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, which begins Monday, senators are likely to press him to discuss his views on abortion, gay rights and campaign funding laws. He is not likely to reveal much. High court nominees usually say they cannot discuss issues that may come before the court.

But senators may have more success pressing Gorsuch about his views on originalis­m.

Leonard Leo, a Federalist Society vice president who served as a Trump adviser, said Gorsuch’s commitment to originalis­m was a key factor in his selection.

Progressiv­e activists, gayrights lawyers and liberal professors have cited Gorsuch’s belief in Scalia’s theory as a reason to oppose his confirmati­on.

Eric J. Segall, a law professor at Georgia State University, describes originalis­m as a “sham” and a “charade” because, he says, the court’s conservati­ves regularly adopt a convenient­ly conservati­ve view of the history.

“It is a political label to define a movement, not a real method of constituti­onal interpreta­tion,” he said.

Others say looking at issues through an 18th century or 19th century lens almost always bodes poorly for modern struggles over things such as affirmativ­e action or women’s rights.

Liberal jurists, led by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have viewed the Constituti­on as more of an evolving document that can be adapted to reflect a changing nation.

Ginsburg, like the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, has noted that when the Constituti­on was adopted in 1787, most of America’s people — women, blacks and Native Americans — could not vote.

It’s a mistake, critics of originalis­m say, to apply narrow, fixed definition­s to the Constituti­on’s broad protection­s for liberty and equality.

“An originalis­t asks if the original understand­ing of the equal protection clause was to mandate same-sex marriage. Obviously the answer is no,” said UCLA law Professor Adam Winkler. “For many Americans, that is not where the analysis should end. They have to recognize we can’t fulfill the promise of equal protection without equal rights for LGBTs. We should look to the basic principles behind a constituti­onal provision and read those principles broadly to meet a changing society.”

It’s a significan­t debate because the high court’s most important decisions often turn on how to interpret phrases such as “freedom of speech,” “establishm­ent of religion” or “cruel and unusual punishment­s,” which appear in the Bill of Rights of 1791.

Perhaps the most disputed clause is in the 14th Amendment of 1868, which says no state may “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdicti­on the equal protection of the laws.”

The Supreme Court cited the 14th Amendment as the basis for rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, rulings Scalia vehemently opposed on the grounds they did not reflect the original meaning.

But Scalia joined the 5-4 ruling in the 2010 Citizens United case that struck down federal campaign-finance restrictio­ns and held that corporatio­ns had a free-speech right to spend unlimited sums on politics. Critics note this pro-corporate decision hardly reflected the original meaning of the First Amendment.

Some progressiv­es support originalis­m, saying it does not necessaril­y lead to conservati­ve results.

“When you look at the full sweep of the Constituti­on, it is a progressiv­e document concerned with voting rights, equality and democracy,” said David H. Gans, lawyer for Constituti­onal Accountabi­lity Center, a self-described progressiv­e group.

In practice, originalis­m has had surprising­ly little effect on major Supreme Court decisions. Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas have been seen as the court’s only true originalis­ts, and they rarely had the opportunit­y to apply that theory in a major ruling, though they frequently raised it in dissents.

Any discussion of originalis­m often turns into a dispute over Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion.

Scalia and Thomas said the decision was wrong and should be overturned because neither the words nor history of the 14th Amendment would warrant striking down state laws that banned abortion.

Knowing that Gorsuch will avoid speaking directly on the topic, Senate Democrats are likely to press him to discuss his views generally on Supreme Court precedents.

They will want to know whether an avowed “originalis­t” would be inclined to uphold or overturn longstandi­ng decisions that were not based on the original history.

Even if they do not say the words, they will be asking whether Gorsuch would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

 ?? MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA ?? Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s days-long Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is to begin on Monday.
MICHAEL REYNOLDS/EPA Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s days-long Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is to begin on Monday.
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