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.