Image courtesy of Vanity Fair
It was just over a year ago that Justice Antonin Scalia passed, leaving a vacant seat on the bench of the highest court in the land. At the time, President Obama nominated appellate court judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia. Garland was denied even a hearing by Senate Republicans. The appointment was denied by Senate Republicans, who preferred that the people decide who would take the seat, i.e. the presidential election should determine who had the power to fill the vacancy. When President Trump took office in January, he moved quickly to submit his choice, appointing Neil Gorsuch, a judge on the Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit. Monday, Judge Gorsuch was confirmed as Justice Gorsuch, rising to fill the shoes of his apparent judicial role model, the late Justice Scalia.
Gorsuch was born in Colorado in 1967, where he was serving on the Tenth Circuit Appeals Court when President Trump nominated him for the Supreme Court. At 49, he is the youngest member of the Bench by a margin of seven years. While he was still at school, his mother, Anne Gorsuch, was appointed as head of the EPA during the Reagan administration. She resigned shortly after being cited ‘in contempt of congress.’ He went on to graduate Phi Betta Kappa in Political Science from Columbia University, whereupon he attended Harvard law on a Truman Scholarship, graduating with a J.D. In 1991
Following his graduation, Gorsuch clerked for several major U.S. judicial figures, including David Sentelle, a D.C. judge involved in both the Whitewater and Iran/Contra proceedings during the Reagan administration; and Justice Anthony Kennedy, who presently sits on the Supreme Court. In 1995, he went on to work litigation for the D.C. based firm Kellog, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans, and Figel until 2006, when he was appointed by President Goerge W. Bush to the appellate court. During his tenure on the appellate bench, Judge Gorsuch established himself as a devout textualist, and a staunch conservative, carrying on the tenor which he had taken up during his undergraduate work for the “Columbia Daily Spectator.” Then, in January of 2017, he was tapped by Donald Trump to become an associate justice on the Supreme Court. After two months of delay and debate, Gorsuch became the 101st associate justice.
For conservatives, he presents a profile very much in the mold of the late Justice Scalia; He represents a moderate, experienced, well educated, and eloquent nominee. For the left, there is questioning of his corporation-friendly rulings and lack of empathy for blue collar workers. Especially noteworthy is his reversal of three previous judicial rulings in favor of an employee of a trucking firm, who was stranded in an unheated 18-wheeler cab with a trailer with frozen brakes in -14 degrees Fahrenheit. The company ordered him to stay and await assistance, which didn’t arrive for nearly three hours. When the employee decided to decouple the cab from the trailer and seek warmth, the company fired him for abandoning his freight, and he sued for wrongful termination. Judge Grosuch ruled in favor of the corporation.
Others are suspicious of his attitude toward reproductive rights, and women’s rights broadly. Gorsuch supported the decision to pardon Hobby Lobby in 2013 for their religiously grounded refusal to pay for legally mandated contraception coverage for their employees. However, in his assent, there was no question of contraception’s moral legitimacy; rather, Gorsuch cited the importance of respecting religious freedom and applying clear legal precedent in judicial deliberation.
What many considered striking in the process of confirmation had, in fact, very little to do with Gorsuch himself. What drew the attention of many was the implementation of a new confirmation standard by Senate republicans – the “nuclear option” – which allowed them to skirt a democratic filibuster and confirm the Justice with a simple majority of 51 votes. Although it is true that the Democrats moved to change an analogous rule for lower court nominees in 2013, they were, at the time, facing an unprecedented number of Republican filibusters. At a conference held by Harry Reid to discuss the change, it was pointed out that former President Bush had faced a total of seven filibusters for executive nominations in his entire eight year tenure, while President Obama had, in only five years, had faced 27. In any case, there is significant unrest in the legislature over the change, from both Democrats and Republicans. What worries many is the idea that the Senate is becoming a less deliberative body. Whereas the house has always been intensely partisan, the Senate, especially with the support of filibustering powers, has been a place of debate and deliberation.