Neil Gorsuch's conservatism runs deep

Judge Gorsuch: Supreme Court's work is vital
Judge Gorsuch: Supreme Court's work is vital

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Judge Gorsuch: Supreme Court's work is vital 04:44

Story highlights

  • Meg Jacobs writes that Gorsuch is a well-respected conservative jurist and potential intellectual heir to Scalia
  • His mother was a central figure in the Reagan administration, a time similar to the present in some ways, Jacobs says

Meg Jacobs teaches history at Columbia and Princeton. She is the author of a new book, "Panic at the Pump: The Energy Crisis and the Transformation of American Politics in the 1970s" (Hill and Wang). Unless otherwise noted, facts included here reflect that book's research. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. Follow her on Twitter @MegJacobs100.

(CNN)Neil Gorsuch, Donald Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, is by all accounts a well-respected conservative jurist, one most likely to become the intellectual heir to Justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat Gorsuch will fill if confirmed.

Meg Jacobs
The confirmation process, regardless of Gorsuch's qualifications, is likely to be a heated affair, not least because Senate Republicans refused to give President Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland a hearing. Some Democrats will exact revenge while others will surely find Gorsuch too conservative, as anyone on Trump's list would have likely been.
It's striking that if he is confirmed, he will move to a Washington battling over regulation, in some ways similar to the nation's capital where his mother arrived to become a central figure in the Reagan administration.
    Though Neil Gorsuch should be judged on his own merits, he is no newcomer to the political warfare that is likely to ensue. Indeed, he comes by his conservative principles honestly and grew up in the nation's capital. Born in 1967, the United States circuit judge is the son of Anne Gorsuch, who served as the administrator of Ronald Reagan's Environmental Protection Agency from 1981-1983.
    As a teenager, Neil Gorsuch lived through the partisan warfare that led to a long confirmation process for his mother and ultimately drove her from office. Known for wearing fur coats, driving a gas guzzling Cadillac and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, in the heady early days of the Reagan Revolution, Anne Gorsuch took Washington by storm.
    The Supreme Court nominee's mother was a point person in President Reagan's efforts to gut federal regulatory bodies by stacking them with administrators who would dismantle programs from within the agencies they ran. Those efforts are especially relevant today when many of Donald Trump's Cabinet nominees also have fundamental objections to the missions of the departments they're slated to head. That's especially true when it comes to the EPA under Scott Pruitt.
    A darling of the new right and a protégé of beer magnate Joseph Coors, Anne Gorsuch, a young former state representative from Colorado, came to the Capitol ready to dismantle the agency she was in charge of. No agency was higher on Reagan's list to weaken than the EPA.
    When Gorsuch was confirmed in May 1981 after a delayed confirmation hearing, she promised to slash EPA regulations. The book of clean water rules, she bragged, would be cut from six inches down to half an inch. And she lived up to her word, with an assist from David Stockman's budget cuts that reduced EPA's funds in her first year by nearly half. Besides advocating outright cuts to her agency, Gorsuch took a lax view toward enforcement. As one Carter-era holdover explained, "The entire organization is suffering from a paralysis from the top down."
    Gorsuch succeeded in scaling back the environmental regulations with help from fellow Coloradan, Secretary of the Interior James Watt, another favorite of the new right. Both made clear what rules their staff should and, more importantly, should not enforce.
    Of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining, a new federal agency set up to limit this environmentally suspect practice, for example, one new appointee bragged, "We tore this agency to hell." The number of federal citations against mine operators instantly fell by two-thirds. Gaylord Nelson, the Democratic Wisconsin senator who pioneered the first Earth Day in 1970, accused Gorsuch of "wholesale dismantling" of all environmental progress.
    Gorsuch, Watt, and other conservative Reagan appointees shared a view that the 1970s had brought excessive regulation to the nation's economy. Proponents of what they called a New Federalism, they sought to relinquish federal power and delegate it back to the states, where the hope was a more sympathetic hearing for industry interests.
    That did not mean, however, that all federal power was bad. As Antonin Scalia, whose seat on the Supreme Court Neil Gorsuch has been nominated to fill, explained, a strong executive was necessary at times to dismantle and undo the outsized and, in his view, illegitimate influence of the federal bureaucracy. Presidents had to hold onto and use executive action to take apart government.
    Anne McGill Gorsuch Burford is shown in Colorado in this 1982 file photo.
    A former assistant attorney general in the Ford administration, Scalia cautioned against "the understandable but nonetheless disastrous aversion of the proponents of limited government to making vigorous use of the legitimate machinery of government to achieve their goals." "The basic goal of the Republican Party," he explained, "is not to govern but to prevent the Democrats from doing so."
    With the backing of the President, Gorsuch and other deregulators were in position to act, to stop what the Wall Street Journal called the "the suffocating creep of the bureaucracy over business."
    However, the conservatism of Gorsuch triggered a backlash and environmental groups led a full-scale countermobilization, filing scores of lawsuits against the EPA for its failure to enforce regulations. Nonenforcement led to Gorsuch's ouster in 1983 after liberals in Congress conducted a three-month investigation into her approach to toxic waste cleanup.
    After refusing to hand over records of Superfund cleanup, claiming executive privilege, Gorsuch became the first head of an agency to receive a citation of contempt from the House. James Watt soon made his own exit, when he, too, came under scrutiny.
    Neil Gorsuch, who was born in 1967, grew up in this heated partisan environment. His mother was as tough a partisan and ideological fighter as they come. According to a local news story, quoted in her Washington Post obituary, "She could kick a bear to death with her bare feet."
    Her memoir, written after she was chased from office, was titled, "Are You Tough Enough?" As for her views of Washington, she remarked that it was "too small to be a state but too large to be an asylum for the mentally deranged." These remarks prevented her from winning another appointment in the Reagan administration.
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    Not only was Gorsuch a committed warrior but she had an equally committed partner. Arriving in Washington as a single mother of three, having divorced her first husband, who was Neil Gorsuch's father, David Gorsuch, Reagan's EPA head married Robert Burford, with whom she had served in the Colorado Legislature.
    As Reagan's head of the Bureau of Land Management, Burford was another foot soldier in Reagan's effort to dismantle federal environmental regulations. Charged with serving the interests of cattlemen and miners, Burford turned over federal lands for private use. Their marriage also ended in divorce in 1991. After leaving Washington, Anne Gorsuch Burford returned to Colorado, where she practiced law until her death in 2004 from cancer.
    By all accounts, Neil Gorsuch is less political and combative than his mother. And, as a judge, he is professionally inclined to operate from principle more than from politics. Those principles, court observers report, would most resemble those of Antonin Scalia. Unlike his mother, who got chased from office, Gorsuch's appointment to the court comes with life tenure. Once he is in, he's in. Perhaps he might not be able to kick a bear to death, but his appointment reflects a deep genealogical commitment to reversing the influence of the federal government.