Federal Appeals Court Judge Neil Gorsuch told a Senate panel on Monday that while he is ‘acutely aware of my own imperfections,’ he pledged to ‘ do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution and laws of this great nation.’
President Donald Trump’s nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a heartfelt and sometimes folksy description of his past to a committee that had already spent nearly five hours bickering about his future.
‘These days we sometimes hear judges described as politicians in robes, seeking to reinforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially,’ he lamented.
‘If I thought that were true, I’d hang up the robe. The truth is I just don’t think that’s what a life in the law is about.’
Neil Gorsuch was sworn-in to testify Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his nomination to be an associate justice of the Supreme Court
Gorsuch hugged his wife Louise in the Senate hearing chamber, 401 days after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia – whose seat President Donald Trump has nominated him to take over
Gorsuch delivered folksy, plainspoken oratory about his family upbringing and his view that a court case ‘isn’t just a number or a name, but a life story of a human being with equal dignity to my own’
Gorsuch described a life on the bench as ‘sometimes a lonely and hard job’
But ‘we tolerate, we cherish different points of view, and we seek consensus whenever we can,’ he said.
He thanked senators for their ‘warm welcome’ and ‘kind advice,’ and pronounced himself ‘honored and I am humbled to be here.’
Warm welcomes, though, were not what the lawmakers had for each other; Gorsuch sat spectator-silent all morning and half of the afternoon as senators drew battle lines.
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings got underway with Republicans and Democrats tussling over whether the high court should use its power to expand the U.S. Constitution, or decide life-shaping cases based on the words America’s founding fathers used 228 years ago.
Judges aren’t free to re-write statutes to get results they believe are more just,’ Republican committee chairman Chuck Grassley declared as the closely watched event got underway. ‘Judges aren’t free to re-order regulations to make them more fair. And no, judges aren’t free to “update” the Constitution. That’s not their job.’
Ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein delivered a blistering critique of judges who stick to the ‘original meaning of the constitution.’
‘This is personal,’ she said, ‘but I find this originalist judicial philosophy to be really troubling. … I firmly believe that the U.S. Constitution is a living document, intended to evolve.’
Gorsuch (center) arrived for the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (left) and Chairman Charles Grassley (right) – the two senators who exchanged passive-aggressive fire Monday
‘Judges aren’t free to “update” the Constitution,’ said Grassley (right); ‘I firmly believe that the U.S. Constitution is a living document,’ countered Feinstein (left)
Gorsuch still faces a lengthy multi-day hearing process and then weeks of waiting for a final vote as Democrats and Republicans argue over whether his judicial philosophy is fit for a lifetime appointment to the high court
Feinstein cited slavery and witch-burnings as she claimed interpreting the Constitution as its framers knew it meant that ‘we would still have segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage,’ and the rights of women and LGBT Americans would be threatened.
Conservatives generally believe that the Constitution should only be changed through the amendment process described in Article V. That involves two-thirds supermajority votes in both houses of Congress, and votes to ratify amendments in three-quarters of U.S. states.
Amendments were ratified in 1865 to ban slavery, in 1869 to guarantee voting rights for American men of all races, and in 1919 to extend the franchise to all women.
Gorsuch’s homespun oratory on Monday, delivered plainly while seated before a capacity crowd, included the pronouncement that ‘putting on a robe requires us judges that it’s time to lose our egos and open our minds.’
‘Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester,’ he said, describing how judges in the U.S. buy their own plain robes to wear on the federal bench.
Facing questions from Democrats who called his past decisions into question over and over during the morning, Gorsuch insisted that he would be an impartial jurist.
‘My decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me, he said. ‘Only a judgment about the law and the facts at issue in each particular case.’
‘A good judge can promise no more than that, and a good judge should guarantee no less. For a judge who likes every outcome he reaches is probably a pretty bad judge, stretching for policy judgments he prefers rather than those the law compels.’
The Gorsuch hearing was as close to a circus as the austere proceedings of the U.S. Senate ever get, with lawmakers preparing to take turns on Tuesday and Wednesday grilling the nominee for 30 minutes apiece
Gorsuch steered clear of hot-button political issues like gun control, abortion and campaign finance laws, giving no hint about his legal views on matters that are sure to come before the Supreme Court in the decades to come
Former Obama administration solicitor general Neal Katyal praised Gorsuch but lashed out at senators for failing to take a vote on Merrick Garland, whom President Obama nominated during last year’s election season
And without approaching the hot-button issues – like gun control, abortion or campaign finance laws – Gorsuch declared that he always sees the human impact of the decisions he hands down.
‘A case isn’t just a number or a name, but a life story of a human being with equal dignity to my own,’ he said.
Trump’s nominee drew smiles by hugging his wife Louise, telling his teenage daughters – watching from home in Colorado – that ‘I love you impossibly,’ and praising his parents as for providing him with a moral foundation.
His mother, he said, ‘taught me that headlines are fleeting; courage lasts.’
‘My dad taught me that success in life has little to do with success. Kindness, he showed me, is a great virtue.’
The largely civil and slow-moving hearings came 13 months after Scalia’s death created a vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Former president Barack Obama nominated a replacement, but the Republican-led Senate declined to hold hearings in an election year, insisting that the newly elected president – whoever it turned out to be – should nominate a new justice.
Former Obama administration solicitor general Neal Katyal lamented that outcome during a brief introduction of Gorsuch, saying he was ‘outraged, and that ‘it is a tragedy of national proportions that Merrick Garland does not sit on the court.’
But Gorsuch, he said, is one of only a handful of nominees who could help Democrats ‘get over that.’
Katyal also cautioned that filling the court with independent-minded justices should be Job One for senators, given President Trump’s ‘open contempt for the courts.’
The president, he said, has become known for ‘attacking judges who disagree with him and even questioning their legitimacy and motives. ‘
‘Between the president’s attacks on the judiciary and his polices, he seems intent on testing the independence and integrity of our court system,’ Katyal warned.
Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
His nomination has been cheered by Republicans and praised by some left-leaning legal scholars, and Democrats head into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Monday divided over how hard to fight him.
The nomination and confirmation process has been surprisingly low-key thus far in a Capitol distracted by Trump-driven controversies over wiretapping and Russian spying as well as attempts to pass a divisive health care bill.
Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Gorsuch listened on January 31 as President Donald Trump nominated him to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016
That will change as the hearings give Democratic senators a chance to press Gorsuch on issues like judicial independence, given Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, as well as what they view as Gorsuch’s own history of siding with corporations in his 10 years on the bench.
The first day of the hearings Monday was scheduled to feature opening statements from senators, and then from Gorsuch himself.
Questioning will begin on Tuesday, and votes in committee and on the Senate floor are expected early next month.
The Senate’s ranking Democrat has pulled no punches in opposing President Trump’s nominee.
‘Judge Gorsuch may act like a neutral, calm judge, but his record and his career clearly show that he harbors a right-wing, pro-corporate special interest agenda,’ Schumer said at a recent news conference featuring sympathetic plaintiffs Gorsuch had ruled against.
One was a truck driver who claimed he’d been fired for abandoning his truck when it broke down in the freezing cold.
Gorsuch’s supporters dispute such criticism and argue that the judge is exceptionally well-qualified by background and temperament, mild-mannered and down to earth, the author of lucid and well-reasoned opinions.
As for the frozen truck case, Gorsuch wrote a reasonable opinion that merely applied the law as it was, not as he might have wished it to be, said Leonard Leo, who is on leave as executive vice president of the Federalist Society to advise Trump on judicial nominations.
‘His jurisprudence is not about results,’ Leo said.
Gorsuch told Democratic senators during private meetings that he was disheartened by Trump’s criticism of judges who ruled against the president’s immigration ban, but Schumer and others were dissatisfied with these comments and are looking for a more forceful stance on that issue and others.
Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has gone after Gorsuch while most moderate Democrats have steered clear of criticizing him openly
Senator Elizabeth Warren last Wednesday showed off petitions calling on senators to oppose Gorsuch
Democrats have struggled with how to handle the Gorsuch nomination, especially since the nominee is hardly a fire-breathing bomb-thrower.
Democrats are under intense pressure from liberal voters to resist Trump at every turn, and many remain irate over the treatment of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court, who was denied so much as a hearing last year by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Several of the more liberal Senate Democrats have already announced plans to oppose Gorsuch and seek to block his nomination from coming to a final vote.
But delay tactics by Democrats could lead McConnell to exercise procedural maneuvers of his own to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold now in place for Supreme Court nominations, and with it any Democratic leverage to influence the next Supreme Court fight.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule when invoked requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted to the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.