Judge Neil Gorsuch sought to reassure senators Tuesday that he would not be swayed by political pressure if he wins confirmation to the Supreme Court – trying to take the steam out of anticipated attacks from Democrats likely to push him to distance himself from President Trump.
Like Supreme Court nominees before him, Gorsuch dodged attempts to pin him down on the controversial cases that would come before him as a justice, and retreated frequently to the position that judges should have no views on political issues.
But he seemed happy to take what even he called the “softball” offered by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) about whether he would have any trouble ruling against President Trump, the man who nominated him.
“I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party other than based on what the law and the facts of a particular case require,” Gorsuch told the panel. “And I’m heartened by the support I have received from people who recognize that there’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge – we just have judges in this country.
“My personal views . . . I leave those at home,” he added later.
Gorsuch made much of his Western roots, and the Columbia-Oxford-Harvard graduate employed a homespun tone – “gosh,” “golly” and “nope” punctuated his answers. Corny dad jokes fell flat, especially with the Democratic senators.
They pressed him on gun rights, privacy and the protracted 2000 presidential campaign recount. Like other Supreme Court nominees have, Gorsuch explained that it would be improper to give his views on cases that might come before him or to grade decisions made in the past.
He had a tense encounter with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who sparred with him on issues of campaign finance and “dark money,” including a $10 million campaign by the group Judicial Crisis Network to advocate for Gorsuch’s confirmation.
Whitehouse said the group’s donors do not have to be disclosed, and he wondered what they saw in Gorsuch that would warrant such an expenditure.
“You’d have to ask them,” Gorsuch said.
“I can’t because I don’t know who they are,” Whitehouse shot back.
Democrats questioned him about his work at George W. Bush’s Justice Department and whether he’d rule against Trump’s travel ban.
Gorsuch declined to express his views on Trump’s move to ban travelers from several Muslim-majority countries because “that’s an issue that is currently being litigated actively.”
When Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) mentioned that a Republican lawmaker recently suggested that Gorsuch would uphold Trump’s ban if it came before the court, Gorsuch snapped: “Senator, he has no idea how I’d rule in that case.”
Other senators quizzed Gorsuch about several of Trump’s past statements, and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) asked Gorsuch whether Trump had asked him to rule in particular ways on important issues during his interview before his nomination.
“Senator, I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch replied.
It was at least the second time senators had pressed Gorsuch on what Trump had said he was looking for in a Supreme Court justice. But Gorsuch said he does not believe in litmus tests, and was never questioned about them.
Each senator was allotted up to 30 minutes to question Gorsuch during the first round of questions. A second round, likely to begin Wednesday, gives senators an additional 20 minutes to quiz the nominee.
The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), asked about Gorsuch’s work on issues involving enhanced interrogation of suspected terrorist detainees while he served in Bush’s Department of Justice.
Even though the issue has been in the news during the past week, Gorsuch said he did not remember a document in which he was preparing talking points for the then-attorney general. “Yes,” is handwritten next to a typed question: “Have the aggressive interrogation techniques employed by the Admin yielded any valuable intelligence?”
Feinstein said she would supply Gorsuch with the documents for future questioning. In general, Gorsuch portrayed himself as a facilitator rather than a policymaker during his 14 months at the DOJ in 2005 and 2006.
“I was a lawyer for a client,” he said.
Feinstein asked about Gorsuch’s role in designing a signing statement for Bush on a detainee treatment law; she characterized it as indicating that the president did not feel bound by the law he had just signed.
“I certainly never would have counseled anyone not to obey the law,” Gorsuch responded.
Gorsuch also forcefully rejected claims by one of his former law school students that he had suggested that women take advantage of maternity leave policies by not telling the truth about their plans to have families in job interviews. Democrats seized on the accusations when they surfaced Sunday and vowed to ask Gorsuch about them.
When Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked about the accusations, Gorsuch explained that he has taught ethics classes at the University of Colorado Law School for several years. Based on his years of teaching young law students, he said that the corporate world, particularly law firms, continue to treat women poorly and often ask inappropriate questions in job interviews that are used to weed out female applicants who plan to have children.
Republicans intend to move quickly on confirming the 49-year-old Gorsuch, who sits on the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Those on the committee hope to refer Gorsuch to the full Senate on April 3 so that he can be confirmed before Mid-April.
But Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) warned Republicans on Tuesday that his party would attempt to slow down consideration of Gorsuch because Republicans last year blocked then-President Barack Obama’s attempts to fill the vacancy created by Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, and because Trump’s presidential campaign is the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation.
Schumer said it seemed “unseemly to be moving forward so fast on confirming a Supreme Court justice with a lifetime appointment” due to the looming FBI investigation, which could potentially last for months or years.
“You can bet that if the shoe was on the other foot – and a Democratic president was under investigation by the FBI – that Republicans would be howling at the moon about filling a Supreme Court seat in such circumstances,” Schumer added.
In the hearing room earlier in the day, Grassley raised hot-button topics like gun rights in hopes of preempting some Democratic inquiries, asking Gorsuch for his opinion on well-known Supreme Court cases. In each case, Gorsuch said that the high court had ruled and that he would respect the court’s precedent while analyzing fresh cases.
To be more expansive in his answers would mean “I would be tipping my hand and suggesting to litigants that I’ve already made up my mind about their cases,” he told Grassley. “That’s not a fair judge.”
With Gorsuch in the witness chair, Democrats repeatedly referenced a Supreme Court nominee that never had a hearing, Judge Merrick Garland, who had been nominated by Obama last year to fill Scalia’s vacancy but was blocked by Republicans.
Under questioning by Leahy, Gorsuch had kind words for Garland, but he declined to weigh in on the Senate’s decision not to take up Garland’s nomination.
“I think it would be imprudent for judges to start commenting on political disputes between themselves or the various branches,” Gorsuch said.
Updated Tuesday, March 21, 2017 at 8:39 pm