Known for his firm conservative views, Gorsuch could tip the court’s balance on hot-button issues such as abortion, voting rights and religious equality
Tom McCarthy / The Guardian / January 31, 2017
President Donald Trump has nominated circuit court judge Neil Gorsuch to fill the vacant seat on the US supreme court, setting up a showdown with congressional Democrats and activists over a pick that could shape the ideological bent of the court for a generation.
Gorsuch, 49, the youngest supreme court nominee in 25 years, was among a group of federal judges reported in recent weeks to be on Trump’s shortlist. A strict adherent of judicial restraint known for sharply-written opinions and bedrock conservative views, Gorsuch, a Colorado native, is popular among his peers and is seen as having strong backing among Republicans generally.
The nomination landed at a moment of sharply-increasing alarm that the Trump administration plans to pursue extremist policies on core questions likely to come before the court, from religious equality to abortion rights to campaign finance, voting rights, access to healthcare, marriage equality, anti-discrimination protections and more.
Announcing his pick in the White House’s East Room, Trump described reading Gorsuch’s writings “closely”, as Gorsuch stood next to Trump listening with a fixed expression of earnest concern, holding his wife, Louise, in one arm.
“His academic credentials … are as good as I have ever seen,” Trump said.
Trump’s nominee has the potential to tip the court one way or the other on those questions. If confirmed, Gorsuch would return the court to nine justices, filling a seat left vacant since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Working for the last year with an even number of justices, the court issued split 4-4 decisions on high-stakes questions such as the protection of undocumented immigrants and the health of public unions, leaving lower court rulings in place.
The next justice to be confirmed may break such ties, giving new strength to the court’s conservative bloc, which could be further buttressed by future Trump nominations in the case of the retirement or death of a justice. One of the four liberal-leaning justices on the court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, turns 84 in March. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist on the court who has sometimes split tie votes for the progressive wing, is 80 years old.
Gorsuch’s track record as a judge on the US court of appeals for the 10th circuit does not shed obvious light on how he might rule as a supreme court justice on hot-button topics such as abortion and marriage equality. He is the author of a book about euthanasia in which he writes, “to act intentionally against life is to suggest that its value rests only on its transient instrumental usefulness for other ends.”
Ideological strands running through Gorsuch’s appeals court rulings would seem likely to endear him to congressional Republicans and Trump’s conservative base. He has shown himself to be solicitous to claims of religious exemptions from the law, to gun rights claims and to the prosecution of death penalty cases.
During Trump’s announcement, Gorsuch addressed the crowd briefly, declaring himself “honored and humbled” and promising to be a “faithful servant to the constitution and laws of this great country” and paying tribute to the principles of partiality, independence, collegiality and courage.
“A judge who likes every outcome he reaches is very likely a bad judge,” Gorsuch said, “stretching” for rulings he desires instead of reading the law on the page.
Before he left the lectern, Trump sought confirmation that his primetime announcement had gone over as planned.
“So was that a surprise?” he said. “Was it?”
Gorsuch is a former clerk for justice Kennedy, and some conservative analysts theorize that he could assert a rightward influence on the centrist Ronald Reagan nominee.
Some Democrats had pledged to filibuster Trump’s pick, in part out of retaliation for the Republicans’ refusal last year to consider the nomination of circuit court judge Merrick Garland, Obama’s selection to replace Scalia. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell argued at the time that it would be inappropriate for a departing president – 11 months remained in Obama’s term – to make such a significant and long-term appointment. But many Democrats are wary to appear obstructionist despite mounting pressure from the liberal base to oppose any Trump nominee.
Under current Senate rules, which require 60 votes for a supreme court confirmation, Gorsuch would need to win the support of multiple Democrats, who count 48 Senate caucus members to the Republicans’ 52.
If the Democrats follow through with a filibuster, however, those rules could change. The previous Democratic leadership of the Senate changed the rules to require fewer votes for the confirmation of most executive nominees, and the current Republican leadership could make an additional change to the rules. McConnell earlier had vowed to confirm Trump’s nominee.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer downplayed the looming threat of an all-consuming political brawl over Trump’s nominee, telling reporters on Tuesday that he believed the Senate would reach the 60-vote threshold required to confirm supreme court appointees.
Interest groups across the political spectrum will spend millions on a public campaign to legitimize or tear down a supreme court nominee. Already, conservative groups are running ads to pressure Senate Democrats in red states into siding with Republicans over the nominee.
A fly-fishing enthusiast and skier who lives outside Boulder, Colorado, Gorsuch lived in Washington DC as a boy, after his mother Anne Gorsuch Burford was appointed by Reagan to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. After graduating from Columbia University, Gorsuch, who is said to have “an inexhaustible store of Winston Churchill quotes”, went on to Harvard Law school and attended Oxford University on a Marshall scholarship. He worked as a corporate lawyer in Washington for a decade before his appointment to the circuit court by George W Bush in 2006, a post to which the Senate confirmed him by voice vote.
The supreme court is currently in recess and is scheduled to reconvene for conference on 17 February.