WASHINGTON – U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch promised to be a “neutral and independent” member of the nation’s highest court as a Senate panel began a divisive four-day hearing over a year-old vacancy.
“If judges were just secret legislators, declaring not what the law is but what they would like it to be, the very idea of a government by the people and for the people would be at risk,” Gorsuch told the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday on the first day of his confirmation hearing.
“I have ruled for disabled students, for prisoners, for the accused, for workers alleging civil rights violations, and for undocumented immigrants. Sometimes too I have ruled against such persons,” he said. “But my decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me – only a judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case.”
Gorsuch, 49, President Donald Trump’s first high court nominee, is a heavy favorite for confirmation given Republicans’ 52-48 Senate majority. Still, senators’ opening statements Monday showed he isn’t likely to win much, if any, Democratic support on the Judiciary Committee.
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse said the high court’s Republican-appointed majority had engaged in a “5-4 rampage” of rulings in recent years that favored “corporations against humans.”
“Tellingly, big special interests are spending millions of dollars in a dark-money campaign to promote” Gorsuch’s confirmation, Whitehouse of Rhode Island said. “They obviously think you will be worth the money.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley said, “The judge’s job, our nominee says, is to deliver on the promise that ‘all litigants, rich or poor, mighty or meek, will receive equal protection under the law and due process for their grievances.’”
Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said the committee plans to vote April 3, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s confident Gorsuch will be confirmed later that week, before a mid-April Senate recess. The Supreme Court hears the final arguments of its current term later that month.
Gorsuch’s confirmation would again give the court five Republican-appointed justices, restoring a majority that had been in place for almost half a century before the February 2016 death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
Gorsuch said he learned the importance of objectivity and judicial independence from mentors including Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom he served as a law clerk.
“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,” Gorsuch said. “If I thought that were true, I’d hang up the robe.”
He also worked to inject his personality into the debate over his nomination. He spoke of his first day on a Denver-based federal appeals court, when he tripped on his robe while carrying papers up the steps to the bench “and everything just went flying.”
In some of the sharpest comments by a Democrat, Dick Durbin of Illinois told Gorsuch, “In case after case, you’ve either dismissed or rejected the efforts of workers and families to recognize their rights or defend their freedoms.”
“You’re going to have your hands full with this president,” who has attacked individual judges who ruled against him, the second-ranking Senate Democrat also told the judge.
Durbin criticized Gorsuch for backing the right of corporations and their owners to assert religious rights. Gorsuch in 2013 sided with Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., whose owners objected to providing the birth-control coverage required under Obamacare. The Supreme Court later agreed with Gorsuch.
“I don’t recall ever seeing a corporation in the pews of Old St. Patrick’s Church in Chicago,” Durbin said.
Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, said judges “should never decide cases based on their own personal preferences.”
“You apply the law neutrally in all cases, without regard to the parties,” Lee said.
Gorsuch, if elevated, would become the youngest justice since 43-year-old Clarence Thomas joined the court in 1991. He will get plenty of help from Republicans who say the only pattern he’s shown is his adherence to what the law requires.
Grassley said to the judge at the start of the hearing: “If you hear that you’re for some business or against some plaintiff – don’t worry. We’ve heard all of that stuff before.”
In two days of questioning by Judiciary Committee members that will begin Tuesday, Gorsuch will try to avoid saying anything controversial and sidestep attempts by Democrats to pin him down on the most pressing legal issues that might come before the court. Democrats and liberal interest groups are trying to make the case that Gorsuch’s decade on a federal appeals court in Denver shows that he favors powerful institutions at the expense of average people.
Democrats will be hard-pressed to stop Gorsuch’s nomination given Republican control. Under current rules, Democrats need only 41 votes to filibuster the nomination, but Republicans could eliminate the tactic for blocking Supreme Court appointments by going “nuclear” and changing the rules with a simple majority vote.
If that happens, Democrats could lose the powerful tool to block any other future high court nominees while Trump is in office. Three justices – Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – are at least 78.