Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch came to the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday prepared to deliver a clear message: I’m a judge, not a politician.
He stressed on several occasions that he is independent from the President who has appointed him, that as a judge he “doesn’t give a whit” about politics, and that he treats his plaintiffs fairly.
Sitting at a small table, he turned to listen to each senator as they spoke, hour after hour, carefully writing notes before launching into his replies. The questions – even on hot-button issues such as abortion, the travel ban and controversial Supreme Court opinions – never rattled him. He showed command of the law and pushed back if a senator tried to cut his answer short.
Neil Gorsuch confirmation hearings
At times he showed glimpses of his personality, revealing a favorite book (“The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy”), relating stories of rodeos in Colorado, and more than once exclaiming “oh goodness” when he disagreed with a question.
More important for his nomination, he consistently resisted attempts to drag him into politics.
In one particular exchange, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, referenced the fact that President Donald Trump said repeatedly that he wanted to appoint “pro life” judges to the court.
Graham asked Gorsuch what he would have done if he had been asked by Trump to overrule Roe v. Wade, the landmark opinion legalizing abortion.
After a slight pause Gorsuch’s response was firm.
“I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said.
He was pressed repeatedly by Democrats to comment on the fact that President Barack Obama’s nominee for Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat – Judge Merrick Garland – never received a hearing.
Gorsuch managed to thread the needle, expressing his admiration for Garland – “I think the world of Merrick Garland,” but he said he couldn’t comment on the controversy.
“Judges have to stay outside of politics,” he told Democratic Sen. Al Franken.
“If critics of Judge Gorsuch were looking for a seminal moment to cement the case against his confirmation, they didn’t get it today,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor of law at the University of Texas School of Law.
“Of course, those who hope Judge Gorsuch will rule in their favor on particular issues once he’s confirmed would have trouble identifying clear showings of support too,” Vladeck said.
“That seems to be par for the course for contemporary Supreme Court confirmation hearings – lots of sound and fury, but ultimately signifying very, very little.”
There was one moment, however, where Gorsuch clearly stepped into the political arena – when he criticized the man who nominated him.
Gorsuch said Trump’s attacks on the federal judge who blocked his administration’s travel ban were “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”
The nominee previously made those comments in private conversations with senators, but Tuesday marked the first time he went on the record with his disapproval of the President’s rhetoric when he called US District Judge James L. Robart a “so-called judge.”
“When anyone criticizes the honesty, integrity, the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening, I find that demoralizing, because I know the truth,” Gorsuch said.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal followed up by asking if “anyone” included the President.
“Anyone is anyone,” Gorsuch said.
The panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, pushed for an inkling on how he’d rule on Roe.
“Do you view Roe as having a super precedent?” she asked.
The best Gorsuch would give her was to say, “it has been reaffirmed many times.”
And Gorsuch was ready when Feinstein tried to highlight some cases where he had ruled for a corporation.
“I know a case or two has been mentioned,” he said, “respectfully I’d suggest that it does not represent the body of my work.”
He noted that he has participated in 2,700 opinions as an appellate court judge and then proceeded to name several cases. “If you want cases where I’ve ruled for the little guy as well as the big guy there are plenty of them, senator.”
With a bit of emotion he added, “I’d like to convey to you, from the bottom of my heart – is that I am a fair judge.”
By his sixth hour of testimony, Gorsuch made clear that he wasn’t a fan of the confirmation process – a complaint often echoed by Supreme Court nominees and sitting justices.
“There’s a lot of this process I’m uncomfortable with,” he allowed, “but I’m not God, no one asked me to fix it, I’m here as a witness, trying to faithfully answer your questions as best I can, consistent with the constraints I have as a sitting judge.”