The best way to understand Gorsuch’s potential to transform the law and to enforce constitutional limitations on federal and state laws is to read his book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, published in 2006. The fact that Gorsuch wrote it in the first place shows his intellectual ambition. After graduating from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, clerking on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit (where I got to know and admire him as a clerk the same year), and then going on to clerk for Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy, Gorsuch thrived for a decade at the Washington law firm of Kellogg Huber. He then left his high-paying partnership for Oxford University, which he attended on a Marshall Scholarship, and completed his doctorate with John Finnis, the great scholar of natural law.
Gorsuch’s doctoral thesis, which became the basis for his book, makes a deontological argument—one based on duties rather than consequences. It offers an extended objection to the consequentialist view of law offered by scholars ranging from the pragmatist Richard Posner to the libertarian Richard Epstein. His approach to the issue is instead “premised on the idea that all human beings are intrinsically valuable and the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”
In praising Gorsuch after his appointment was announced, Republican Senator Mike Lee, who as an attorney argued before Gorsuch, emphasized how carefully he reads the footnotes in briefs. And indeed, Gorsuch in his book takes Posner to task for misreading footnotes and misrepresenting data. He also criticizes Epstein for embracing a “libertarian theory [that] tends not merely toward legalizing assisted suicide for the terminally ill, but also toward legalization of assisted suicide, euthanasia, and consensual homicide for all competent adults, regardless of their physical condition or reasons for action.”
Gorsuch roots his conclusion in practical experience and natural law, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence:
Don’t we sometimes respect persons and things because of what they are, not because of what they can do for us? Indeed, our entire political system is premised on the notion and acceptance of such basic, fundamental rights (and wrongs), as reasoned from human experience. Our Declaration of Independence begins the substance of its work with the bold assertion that certain ‘truths’ about human nature are indeed ‘self-evident,’ that these self-evident truths include the impulse for life and the value of liberty, and all that follows in the Declaration, the whole purpose pose and ideal of government as envisioned by the founding document of our country, is to establish a government that is aimed at securing and protecting what our founders considered to be self-evident human rights and truths.
Unlike Clarence Thomas, who insisted in his confirmation hearings that his musings about natural law and the Declaration of Independence had no constitutional implications, Gorsuch stresses:
Perhaps the most profound indicium of the innate value of human life, however, lies in our respect for the idea of human equality. The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection of the laws to all persons; this guarantee is replicated in Article 14 of the European Convention and in the constitutions and declarations of rights of many other countries. This profound social and political commitment to human equality is grounded on, and an expression of, the belief that all persons innately have dignity and are worthy of respect without regard to their perceived value based on some instrumental scale of usefulness or merit. We treat people as worthy of equal respect because of their status as human beings and without regard to their looks, gender, race, creed, or any other incidental trait—because, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, we hold it as ‘self-evident’ that ‘all men (and women) are created equal’ and enjoy ‘certain unalienable Rights,’ and ‘that among these are Life.’
What are the constitutional implications of Gorsuch’s Jeffersonian view of natural law? He presents his “inviolability-of-life principle” as a modest suggestion “that current laws against assisted suicide and euthanasia largely should be retained,” calling it “the clearest, most consistent secular explanation and defense for our current regime that proscribes intentional killings but does not seek to enforce any broader rule interfering with patient autonomy and choice.” Gorsuch stresses that “my argument, based on secular moral theory, is consistent with the common law and long-standing medical ethics” and he emphasizes that “I do not seek to address publicly authorized forms of killing like capital punishment and war.”