WASHINGTON — In the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Monday, Judge Neil Gorsuch defended himself from Senate Democrats who said he ruled against the “little guy” as a federal judge.
“I have ruled for disabled students, prisoners, for workers alleging civil rights violations, and for undocumented immigrants,” Gorsuch said. “Sometimes, I have ruled against [them], too. But my decisions have never reflected a judgment about the people before me — only a judgment about the law and facts at issue in each particular case.”
Gorsuch’s statement came after he listened to hours of remarks from senators on the Judiciary Committee, which over four days this week is weighing his nomination to the nation’s highest court. Democratic senators, still angry over Republicans’ refusal to allow former President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a hearing last year, repeatedly brought up cases in which Gorsuch sided against sympathetic plaintiffs while he served as a federal judge in Colorado.
That included the case of Alphonse Maddin, a trucker fired after his trailer broke down in subzero temperatures. Gorsuch concluded it wasn’t illegal for the company to fire him for seeking safety when he began to lose feeling in his body after hours of waiting for help. “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.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., described the frigid environment Maddin faced when he decided to seek help, remarking to Gorsuch that the temperatures were freezing, but “not as cold as your dissent.”
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also brought up Maddin’s case. “A pattern jumps out at me: you rarely seem to find in favor of the little guy,” she said.
“You consistently choose corporations and powerful interests over people,” she added. “We need to know what’s in your heart.”
Republicans on the committee rushed to Gorsuch’s defense over these attacks, saying that judges must be impartial servants of the law and that means sometimes ruling against sympathetic plaintiffs.
“The American people deserve the comfort of a judiciary that’s cold and impartial,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb.
Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said he found it “inspiring” that Gorsuch didn’t let his “sympathy or empathy for a case” influence his final decisions.
Several senators, and Gorsuch himself, paraphrased the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who once said “the judge who always likes the results he reaches is a bad judge.” Gorsuch also noted that the vast majority of the cases he decided from the bench were unanimous decisions.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., highlighted cases in which Gorsuch “most certainly focused on the little guy.” He quoted Denver attorney and Democrat Marcy Glenn in praising Gorsuch for siding with “underdogs” in a case allowing people to sue over illnesses connected to a nearby nuclear weapons facility.
Democratic senators frequently aired their bitterness over the committee Republicans’ treatment of Garland, whose nomination was blocked last year. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said in his opening statement that he believed Garland was more qualified than Gorsuch, “which is saying something.”
But it remains to be seen if the Democrats actually vote against Gorsuch, whose impeccable credentials and support from across the ideological spectrum (former Obama administration lawyer Neal Katyal introduced him Monday) make him an imperfect vessel for their opposition to Donald Trump.
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., carefully revealed this conflict in his statement Monday, saying he was angry about Garland’s treatment but did not think that was reason enough to oppose Gorsuch. Bennet said he was keeping an “open mind” on Trump’s nominee.
Other Democrats sounded much more skeptical of Gorsuch. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Dick Blumenthal, D-Conn., said they believed Gorsuch must go further than previous nominees in explaining his judicial philosophy and declaring his independence from the judicial branch given Trump’s attacks on judges. Gorsuch privately told some senators in February that he found Trump’s comments about judges who ruled against his executive order disheartening.
“You know it’s not enough to say in private that the president’s attacks on the judiciary are disheartening,” Leahy said.
“It isn’t enough to do it in the privacy of my office or my colleagues’ behind closed doors,” Blumenthal said. “I believe that our system really requires and demands that you do it publicly and explicitly and directly.”
But Republican senators argued that Gorsuch should not be made to comment on the president’s statements or on any case that might come up before him on the Supreme Court.
“Was Justice Ginsburg or Breyer asked about the sexual harassment suit filed by Paula Jones?” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked, referring to former President Bill Clinton’s nominees.
Cruz said Democrats’ standard to make Gorsuch criticize the president was a double standard.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., said he wished the Senate would return to its earlier standard of voting for Supreme Court candidates if they are qualified for the job, regardless of whether individual senators share the nominee’s judicial philosophy. He noted that Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia were nearly unanimously confirmed. Unlike 31 of his Republican colleagues, Graham voted for Justice Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 because he believed she was fit for the job, even though he disagreed with her.
“As to whether or not this man is highly qualified, I’m dying to hear the argument that he’s not,” Graham said of Gorsuch.
Senators begin to question Gorsuch Tuesday, with a committee vote on his nomination expected April 3.
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