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Gorsuch Stresses Independence From Trump

  • Michael Bowman

Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch told a Senate panel Tuesday that no Trump administration official had pressured him to promise how he would vote on hot-button issues that could come before the high court.

"I don't believe in litmus tests for judges," Gorsuch, a federal appellate judge, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "No one in that [nomination] process asked me for any commitments, any kind of promises about how I'd rule in any kind of case.

"I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party," the nominee added.

Gorsuch's comment on the second day of his confirmation hearing preceded intensive questioning by lawmakers, especially Democrats, about some controversial Trump campaign promises. Those included reinstituting torture for terror suspects, banning Muslims from entering the United States and nominating judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that established a woman's right to an abortion.

Senate Judiciary Committee members, from left, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., listen on Capitol Hill in Washington as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch answers a question during his confirmation hearing before the committee, March 21, 2017.
Senate Judiciary Committee members, from left, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., listen on Capitol Hill in Washington as Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch answers a question during his confirmation hearing before the committee, March 21, 2017.

"President Trump promised a Muslim ban," said Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, adding that a Republican congressman recently predicted Gorsuch would vote to uphold such a ban if he were confirmed to the Supreme Court.

"Senator, a lot of people say a lot of silly things," Gorsuch replied. "I'm not going to say anything here that would give anybody any idea how I'd rule in any case like that that could come before the Supreme Court."

Senators of both parties pressed Gorsuch to speak on torture.

"In case President Trump is watching [the hearing]: If you start waterboarding people, you may get impeached," warned Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina before posing a question to Gorsuch. "Is that a fair summary? Would he [Trump] be subject to prosecution?"

"Senator, I'm not going to speculate," Gorsuch responded.

"But he's not above the law," Graham continued.

"No man is above the law," Gorsuch said.

WATCH: Gorsuch on impartiality

On abortion, the nominee noted that while Roe v. Wade established a legal precedent that had been reaffirmed repeatedly, he also said courts "may overrule precedent."

Democrats have portrayed Gorsuch as a pro-corporate jurist who would tilt the legal playing field against ordinary Americans, and they pressed him on cases in which he sided with large companies over their employees.

"How do we have confidence that you just won't be for the big corporations, that you will be for the little men?" asked California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

"I've participated in 2,700 opinions over 10½ years" on the federal bench, Gorsuch replied. "And if you want cases where I've ruled for the little guy as well as the big guy, there are plenty of them."

Democrats also continued to vent about the Republican majority's refusal to consider former President Barack Obama's nominee for the same seat, Judge Merrick Garland, once held by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died early last year.

"Do you think he [Garland] was treated fairly by this committee?" Leahy asked.

"He's an outstanding judge," Gorsuch said. "I can't get involved in politics."

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., right, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., center, speak with Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, left, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017, before the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., right, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., center, speak with Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, left, on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017, before the start of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Judicial nominees, both liberal and conservative, historically have refused to allow themselves to be pinned down on pending legal issues during their confirmation hearings. Gorsuch did the same, including when Feinstein asked whether courts should have the ultimate say in determining the extent of Americans' right to bear arms.

"Can you do [answer] yes or no?" Feinstein asked.

"No, I wish I could," Gorsuch responded.

"I wish you could, too," Feinstein added.

Gorsuch repeatedly returned to the fundamental American concept of an independent judiciary and the separation of powers in three co-equal branches of government, while also stressing his conservative judicial philosophy that judges exist to apply the laws Congress writes, not rule from the bench.

"Judges would make pretty rotten legislators," Gorsuch said. "We're life-tenured. You can't get rid of us. … It would be a pretty poor way to run a democracy."

Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, back to camera, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, flanked by the committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif right and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch, back to camera, listens on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 21, 2017, as Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, flanked by the committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif right and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Gorsuch will face at least one more day of questioning by all senators in the committee. Later, the panel will vote on whether to recommend his nomination to the full Senate.

Republicans hold 52 of the Senate's 100 seats and would need eight Democrats to support Gorsuch should a filibuster necessitate a three-fifths vote to advance his nomination in the full chamber.

Democrats are under intense pressure from progressive activists to oppose Gorsuch, but Republicans have the option of changing Senate rules to eliminate the minority party's ability to block Supreme Court nominees should Democrats vote as a bloc against Gorsuch.

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