CAPITOL HILL —
President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, federal appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch, made clear his conservative leanings by speaking out against judicial activism Monday during the first day of confirmation hearings before a sharply divided Senate panel.
“It’s for this body, the people’s representatives [in Congress] to make new laws,” Gorsuch said. “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.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, confers with the committee's ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2017, during the committee's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch.
Republican praise; Democrat concern
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee praised Gorsuch’s conservative judicial philosophy, while Democrats voiced concerns that he would solidify what they view as the Supreme Court’s pro-corporate leanings.
“No matter your politics, you should be concerned about the preservation of our constitutional order, and most importantly the separation of powers,” said the committee’s chairman, Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. “Fortunately for every American, we have before us today a nominee whose body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment to these principles.”
“Our job is to assess how this nominee’s decisions will impact the American people, and whether he will protect the legal and constitutional rights of all Americans, not just the wealthy and the powerful,” said the committee’s top Democrat, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
“The Supreme Court has the final say on whether a woman will continue to have control over her own body, or whether decisions about her health care will be determined by politicians and the government,” Feinstein added. “It decides whether billionaires and large corporations will be able to spend unlimited sums of money to buy elections.”
Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's choice to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court arrives for a meeting with Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Trump nominated Gorsuch to fill the seat once occupied by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died early last year. He is the second nominee for the lifelong position. Republicans refused to consider former President Barack Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland, arguing that no one should be elevated to the Supreme Court during the heat of a presidential campaign.
Democrats made clear that the past is not forgotten.
“Your name is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said, addressing Gorsuch directly. “That is why Senate Republicans kept this Supreme Court seat vacant for more than a year.
“The Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will extend to you a courtesy which Senate Republicans denied to Judge Garland: a respectful hearing and a vote,” Durbin added.
Experience not in doubt
Republicans argued that Democrats would have done the same had a Republican president been in a position to name a high court nominee in the waning months of an administration, and that Gorsuch’s legal qualifications are beyond reproach.
“I would encourage my colleagues to carefully consider the nominee on the merits and nothing else,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas.
No Democrat implied that Gorsuch, who has been a federal judge for more than a decade, lacks the experience to serve on the Supreme Court.
“[Corporate] Special interests … are now spending millions and millions of dollars campaigning to push your nomination,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. “They obviously think you will be worth their money. These special interests also supported the Republican majority keeping this seat open.
Republicans responded by noting that many of them voted to confirm liberal high court nominees despite disagreeing with them on ideological grounds.
Originalist judicial philosophy
For his part, Gorsuch pushed back against any portrayal of him as a one-sided judge who always rules in favor of powerful economic interests.
“In my decade on the bench, I’ve tried to treat all who come before me fairly and with respect, and afford equal rights to poor and to rich” the nominee said.
The Supreme Court is tasked with applying the Constitution to legal disputes. Gorsuch is often described as a believer in “originalism” — that America’s founding document be applied as it was written more than two centuries ago and amended in subsequent years, not interpreted and expanded for application in modern cases.
Gorsuch did not speak on any originalist beliefs he may harbor. But Democrats did not hold back.
“I find this originalist judicial philosophy to be really troubling,” Feinstein said. “It severely limits the genius of what our Constitution upholds. I firmly believe the American Constitution is a living document intended to evolve as our country evolves.”
Gorsuch will face at least two days of direct questioning by all senators on the committee. Later, the panel will vote on whether to recommend his nomination to the full Senate.
Republicans hold a slim two-seat Senate majority and would need eight Democrats to support Gorsuch should a three-fifths vote be required to advance his nomination in the full chamber.