Though Neil Gorsuch did well in the hearings, it doesn't necessarily mean he won over his critics
The third day of hearings wrapped and its the last time Gorsuch will have to testify
Neil Gorsuch finished his final day of testimony Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, facing tough questions from Democrats on the panel without ever hinting how he might rule on hot-button issues.
Fireworks instead were more prevalent between Republicans and Democrats on the committee, who lobbed accusations against each other of politicizing the Supreme Court nomination process.
Gorsuch, however, came out of the gauntlet with barely a scratch. Democrats poked and prodded, attempting to get a better understanding of his personal views and how they would affect his potential court rulings.
But the 49-year-old federal judge was unwavering, yielding little fodder that could derail his nomination. Even one of his fiercest Democratic questioners on the committee seemed to suggest Gorsuch’s confirmation was inevitable.
“This is probably the last time you’ll pay attention to me,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island said. “I am not likely to appear before the court unless things should change fairly dramatically. I have argued in the Supreme Court, but some time ago.”
Though Gorsuch did well in the hearings, it doesn’t necessarily mean he won over his critics. It’s unclear yet how things will shake out in the full Senate after Gorsuch gets a committee vote.
Democrats on the panel expressed great frustration with Gorsuch, saying he was not being forthcoming enough in his answers. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, for one, said at the end that he “remained troubled” by Gorsuch not revealing his views about certain cases. Sen. Mazie Hirono told Gorsuch she wished the hearing had been more “illuminating,” saying she’s left to judge his qualifications based on what he “refused to say.”
Still, the hearings went into a third round Wednesday night, but Republicans gave back most of their time and even some Democrats gave back some of their allotted 15 minutes. Audience seats were half-empty by then – and the hearing didn’t see one protester all week.
It was yet another sign that Gorsuch’s nomination could potentially avoid a knock-down-drag-out brawl in the Senate. Republicans have 52 senators, and need the support of eight Democrats to avoid a filibuster in the full Senate.
The Republican National Committee announced a six-figure ad buy targeting 12 Democratic senators from mostly states that President Donald Trump won, in part urging voters to call their senators and demand an up-or-down vote for Gorsuch in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin, one of those Democrats, stopped by the hearing Wednesday afternoon. The West Virginia senator said he’s still keeping an open mind and requested a second meeting with Gorsuch next week.
Manchin said Gorsuch was “pretty solid” from what he saw in the hearings and offered some tough love for some of his Democratic colleagues when it comes to considering the Supreme Court pick.
“I need to tell them every now and then that we lost, the Democrats lost the presidential election. You’re not going to get someone of your preference,” he said. “You get someone you can live with and someone who has good character and good stature – and can you go that direction? Does that prevent the 60-rule threshold to be broken? There’s a lot of considerations there.”
While Gorsuch is finished with appearing before the committee, witnesses will testify on his behalf before the committee on Thursday.
Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley announced he expects the committee will vote on Gorsuch’s nomination April 3. The nominee himself – who remained steadfastly polite throughout the hearings – interrupted the final round of questions to ask if he could say his “thank yous” before any senators had to leave early.
Gorsuch recalled individual meetings he held with 72 senators over the past six weeks and thanked the lawmakers for their “courtesies.”
“I wish the American people could see what I’ve seen,” he said. “I think that if they had seen what I’ve seen, they’d be much bigger believers in their government than they are. It’s not perfect, my branch isn’t perfect, but I’m a believer in it and I want to thank you.”
Republicans, Democrats square off
Gorsuch faced long days of grilling – including an 11-hour hearing on Tuesday – answering questions on a range of issues, from his previous rulings to the President’s attacks on the judiciary.
While tense exchanges between Gorsuch and Democrats were minimal, Democrats still grew irritated by his refusal to opine on certain issues.
Democrats also hammered Republicans for blocking a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court last year so they could keep the seat open until a new president was inaugurated. It was a topic that came up throughout the week, with one senator flat-out telling Gorsuch he thought Merrick Garland was more qualified than Gorsuch.
Republicans, in turn, accused their Democratic colleagues of applying a double standard, saying they’ve been quick to criticize Gorsuch – a federal judge – yet at the same time condemn Trump’s attacks on federal judges – something Democrats did repeatedly when trying to get Gorsuch to comment on the President’s rhetoric.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, used a chunk of his time Wednesday to read off a list of attacks against Gorsuch by high-profile Democrats, including some on the committee.
“My colleagues, the Democrats, have a right to engage in whatever attacks they chose. But it’s a little rich for them to be maligning a sitting federal judge and at the same time giving speeches about how unacceptable it is for anyone to criticize a federal judge,” he said. “You can’t have both at the same time.”
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, clarified that he wasn’t defending Trump’s attacks, but said he found Democrats’ rhetoric about Gorsuch’s previous rulings “ironic” and “quite troubling.” Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, called it “absurd.”
Earlier Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, bemoaned that the confirmation process has become too politicized and specifically targeted Democrats for trying to get Gorsuch to state his personal views.
“What’s happened? Did the Constitution change? I don’t think so. I think politics has changed. I think it’s changed in a fashion that we should all be ashamed of as senators, and I think we’re doing great damage to the judiciary by politicizing every judicial nomination,” he said.
‘I expect judicial decrees to be obeyed’
Gorsuch throughout the week sought to paint himself as a fair and independent judge, walking a delicate line of trying to answer questions without tipping his hand.
If confirmed, Gorsuch will fill the seat vacated by the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Though Gorsuch had deep admiration for Scalia, his attempts to stay independent meant keeping his distance from the former justice at times.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, who said Scalia was “intelligent” and a friend, asked Gorsuch if he agreed with Scalia’s comment that the 2013 renewal of the Voting Rights Act was a “perpetuation of racial entitlement.”
Gorsuch did not give a direct answer. “I don’t speak for Justice Scalia,” he said. “I speak for myself.”
The nominee also repeatedly suggested he’d be willing to rule against the President, if necessary.
Citing the Bush administration and torture, Leahy asked Gorsuch on Wednesday if he thinks there’s any circumstance in which a president can ignore a law on the books.
“I can’t think of one, offhand,” Gorsuch said.
Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, used his answer to transition to a question about the Trump administration. Without mentioning a name, Leahy referenced a quote by Trump adviser Stephen Miller on the President’s executive order banning immigration from six Muslim majority countries.
Miller, around the time a federal court ruled against the ban earlier this year, stated that the President’s powers to protect the nation “will not be questioned.” Reading the quote, Leahy asked Gorsuch if a president would have to comply with a court order.
“That’s the rule of law in this country,” Gorsuch said.
“I’m a judge now, and I take that seriously,” he added. “And you better believe I expect judicial decrees to be obeyed.”
‘Law of the land’
On the campaign trail, Trump said he would appoint a judge who would overturn the Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, but Gorsuch said he was never asked during the selection process to make promises on certain decisions.
Pressed on what he would have done if Trump had asked him to do so, Gorsuch said he “would have walked out the door.”
Gorsuch acknowledged that abortion came up once in a conversation with Trump, but he said it was in the context of saying many of his supporters were opposed to it.
Later in the day, he appeared to give his clearest answer yet on abortion rights. Gorsuch was asked by Sen. Dick Durbin about a book he wrote on assisted suicide, which touched on the debate over when life begins.
“As the book explains, the Supreme Court of the United States has held in Roe v. Wade that a fetus is not a person for purposes of the 14th Amendment and the book explains that,” Gorsuch said.
“Do you accept that?” Durbin, D-Illinois, asked.
“That’s the law of the land, senator,” Gorsuch said. “Yes.”
Democrats seize on Supreme Court decision
Democrats pounced on the news that the Supreme Court Wednesday reversed an interpretation of a federal anti-discrimination statute that Gorsuch played a role in crafting.
Chief Justice John Roberts explained that the federal appeals court in Denver had applied too strict a standard to claims by an autistic child’s parent that they were entitled to reimbursement for the cost of private education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
The decision reversed Wednesday was by a different three-judge panel (that didn’t include Gorsuch) of the same court on which he sits – but it relies largely on an earlier decision by the same court that Gorsuch wrote. Gorsuch’s interpretation was that if a school district satisfies federal law, it does not need to reimburse the cost of private education, so long as it provides educational benefits to disabled students that are “more than de minimis.”
In Wednesday’s opinion, the Supreme Court stressed that more was required by the federal statute.
Democratic Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Durbin quizzed Gorsuch on his interpretation, with Klobuchar pointing out more than once that the Supreme Court was unanimous in its decision disagreeing with him.
Gorsuch noted there was a circuit split on the standard, and argued he was trying to follow precedent as best he could.
“To suggest that we were in any way out of the mainstream or that I was doing anything unusual would be mistaken, because it’s the standard used by many circuits up until, I guess, today,” he said.
Gorsuch said he finds it “wonderfully reaffirming” that there’s a body like the Supreme Court that resolves situations like these in which federal courts disagree.
CNN’s Steve Vladeck, Mary Kay Mallonee, Ben Krolowitz, and David Shortell contributed to this report.