Judge Gorsuch Goes to Washington

President Trump’s nominee adopted a humble mien in his opening foray before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

In the hours before Neil Gorsuch introduced himself to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday, the senators laid out how they would interrogate him in the week ahead.

President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee will spend the next few days answering probing questions from lawmakers on a broad range of issues: his judicial philosophy, his views on issues ranging from abortion to workers’ rights, his thoughts on judicial independence and the separation of powers, a decade’s worth of his rulings and dissents, and the controversial actions of the president who nominated him.

The senatorial gauntlet to become a Supreme Court justice is perhaps the most strenuous test in Washington, with a lifetime position as one of the nine most powerful Americans awaiting Gorsuch at the end of it if he succeeds. But the 49-year-old federal appellate judge from Colorado presented himself as a humble jurist who strives to apply the law fairly and impartially.

“Sometimes the answers we reach aren’t ones we would personally prefer,” he told the committee. “Sometimes the answers follow us home and keep us up at night. But the answers we reach are always the ones we believe the law requires. For all its imperfections, the rule of law in this nation truly is a wonder—and it is no wonder that it is the envy of the world.”

His appearance at Monday’s hearing was largely introductory, with Democratic and Republican senators taking turns to make opening statements. Gorsuch sat patiently as, one after the other, lawmakers alternated between effusive praise for his qualifications and stern expressions of concern about his track record, like a slew of movie trailers to precede the blockbuster sessions to come.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democratic member, expressed fears that Gorsuch would use his lifetime seat on the Court to strike down gun-ownership restrictions under the Second Amendment, or overturn what she described as the “super-precedent” of Roe v. Wade. She also questioned Gorsuch’s past critiques of the Chevron doctrine, a longstanding legal principle by which courts broadly defer to executive agencies on interpreting their authority under federal law.

Other Democrats saw too much deference toward business interests in his written opinions for the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has served since 2006. Multiple Democratic senators cited the case of Alphonse Maddin, a truck driver who worked for TransAm Trucking. While traveling through a frigid Illinois winter night in January 2009, the brake lines in Maddin’s trailer froze and he was forced to call for help. His supervisor instructed him to stay with the trailer despite a broken heater in his truck.

Once Maddin’s feet began to go numb and his breathing became more difficult, he left the trailer behind and sought shelter instead. TransAm later fired him for abandoning the trailer. Maddin then filed a complaint with the Department of Labor, and an administrative review board sided with him. TransAm appealed their decision to the Tenth Circuit, which sided with Maddin in a 2 to 1 decision. “It might be fair to ask whether TransAm’s decision was a wise or kind one,” Gorsuch wrote in his dissent. “But it’s not our job to answer questions like that. Our only task is to decide whether the decision was an illegal one.”

That stance drew strong criticism from Democrats. “You see, there was no heater in the truck, and according to his recollection, it was so cold, it was 14 degrees below,” said Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. “Not as cold as your dissent, Judge Gorsuch, which argued that his firing was lawful.”

Gorsuch tried to deflect the line of Democratic criticism by pointing out he’d ruled on behalf of the “little guy” as well. He cited judgments in favor of Native Americans, disabled students, prisoners, and undocumented immigrants. “Sometimes, I have ruled against such persons, too,” he added. “But my decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me—only my best judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case.”

Few of the Democratic lawmakers tried to directly tie Gorsuch to the president who nominated him, but Trump’s critical rhetoric toward the federal judiciary loomed over the hearings. The judge reportedly deplored those remarks in private meetings with lawmakers, but Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal urged Gorsuch to go further. “I believe that our system really requires and demands that you do it publicly and explicitly and directly,” he told him.

Even Republicans took note of the Trumpian elephant in the room, albeit wryly. “Some of my colleagues seem to have rediscovered an appreciation for the need to confine each branch of government to its proper sphere,” Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, the committee chairman, said in his opening remarks. “I don’t question the sincerity of those concerns, but some of us have been alarmed by executive overreach, and the threat it poses to the separation of powers, for quite some time now.”

There was also a rare gesture of bipartisanship near the end of Monday’s hearing, when Gorsuch was introduced by both of Colorado’s senators, Republican Cory Gardner and Democrat Michael Bennet, as well as Neal Katyal, a former acting solicitor general during the Obama administration.

Bennet insisted that his participation did not mean he would vote in favor of Gorsuch’s confirmation. “It is tempting to deny Judge Gorsuch a fair hearing because of the Senate’s prior failure” to hold a hearing for former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. “But, Mr. Chairman, two wrongs never make a right,” he said. “The Supreme Court is too important for us not to find a way to end our destructive gridlock and bitter partisanship.”

But the hearings were inescapably political. Texas Senator Ted Cruz touted the Senate’s refusal to hold hearings for Garland last year as a positive and argued that Trump’s election had given Gorsuch “super-legitimacy.” Other Republicans attacked their Democratic colleagues for contributing to the politicization of the process. “Something is seriously wrong when the confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice resembles an election campaign for political office,” Utah Senator Orrin Hatch said.

Gorsuch tried to set himself apart from the partisan fray. American judges, he told the committee, must occupy a “modest station” in a healthy democracy. “In other countries, judges wear scarlet, silk, and ermine,” he testified. “Here, we judges buy our own plain black robes. Ours is a judiciary of honest black polyester.”