President Donald Trump traveled to the Supreme Court on Thursday to celebrate the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch, a rare visit to a branch of government he vowed to reshape during the campaign.
Trump’s visit was relatively short. After arriving with first lady Melania Trump, the President sat in the front row, closest to the bench. Mrs. Trump sat next to retired Justice John Paul Stevens.
Right before the ceremony, the President went to the Court’s conference room and shook hands with the justices.
The chamber was filled with legal luminaries from mostly Republican administrations as well as current members of the White House staff and Congress who were critical to Gorsuch’s nomination. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – who blocked President Barack Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland – White House counsel Don McGahn and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were in attendance.
Leading up to the visit, there was a question about tension in the room given Trump’s rhetoric against the judicial branch. Candidate Trump was harshly critical of some justices, and since the election, he’s launched broad attacks on the judiciary as a whole.
His visit also came at a delicate time: The court is currently considering the fate of the travel ban, arguably the President’s most controversial initiative to date. On top of all of that: sources say that Justice Anthony Kennedy is seriously thinking about retirement, although no one seems to know if it will occur as early as this term.
A Kennedy retirement would be seismic, and a small step closer to what Trump predicted last summer at a rally in Virginia. “I’ll tell you, this could be the presidency with the most Supreme Court picks of any presidency in history,” Trump said. “You’ll probably have three, you could have four and you could even have five.”
So far, Trump has only been able to fill one seat – that of the late Justice Antonin Scalia that sat empty since February 2016 – but the nomination of Gorsuch stands out as a shining success during the first few months of a beleaguered presidency.
Gorsuch was confirmed back in April and has already authored an opinion. His investiture was delayed so he could concentrate on work. Thursday, however, the court will hold a special sitting and bring out all the pomp and circumstance that it does so well.
Gorsuch will begin by sitting with members of the audience in the courtroom. Chief Justice John Roberts will administer the oath, and then the Gorsuch will move from the well of the chamber to his seat on the far right of the bench.
Following the ceremony, Gorsuch and the chief justice will walk out the front doors and down the iconic steps as the cameras whirl.
And then it’s back to work.
Gorsuch has already participated in oral arguments, and voted in conference. Earlier this week, he issued his first opinion in an under-the-radar case concerning the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. His fluid and elegant writing style was evident in the first sentence: “Disruptive dinnertime calls, downright deceit, and more besides drew Congress’s eye to the debt collection indus-try.”
And in the unanimous opinion, Gorsuch included a Scalia-like promise to adhere to the “proper role” of the courts “to apply, not amend, the work of the People’s representatives.”
The junior most justice rarely writes the big opinions – those are usually assigned according to seniority. But his vote has the same weight of any other justice.
And just last week, another huge case landed at the court: Trump’s travel ban. The Trump administration is asking the justices to allow the executive order suspending travel from six Muslim-majority countries – to go immediately into effect.
In the coming weeks, Gorsuch will find himself in the position of voting on a key and controversial initiative of the man who placed him on the court. It’s something most every justice has to do at one point or another, but it comes relatively quickly for the 49-year-old Gorsuch.
Trump is watching carefully.
Tuesday morning, after the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals became the latest court to rule against the travel ban, Trump launched another tweet.
“Well, as predicted, the 9th Circuit did it again - Ruled against the TRAVEL BAN at such a dangerous time in the history of our country. S.C.”
By including the Supreme Court —”S.C.” — the President seemed to send a thinly veiled message: approve my travel ban or risk national security.
While the nine justices don’t partake in the twittersvere, the President’s social media missives have not been lost on either the lawyers challenging the ban or the judges who have ruled against it.
The 9th Circuit opinion, for example, mentioned the presidential tweets in a footnote.
In general, the tweets don’t do any favors to government lawyers who are trying to focus attention on the actual text of the executive order and not Trump’s statements before and after winning the presidency. Critics contend the presidential statements reflect an animus toward Muslims, something Trump vigorously denies.
But amid the controversy, the President tweets on and the judiciary has not been spared.
Last summer, after CNN legal analyst Joan Biskupic reported that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg called Trump a “faker,” Trump responded with a ferocious tweet.
“Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb political statements about me. Her mind is shot - resign!” he wrote.
But while Trump’s venue of choice – Twitter – is unique, executive criticism of the courts is nothing new and dates back to the days of Chief Justice John Marshall.
In fact, Marshall’s presence will be felt on Thursday. Before taking the oath, Gorsuch will sit for a time in the very same chair that Marshall used in the early 19th century.