WASHINGTON — During a 10-hour grilling from senators Tuesday, Judge Neil Gorsuch offered few hints as to his judicial philosophy, frustrating the Judiciary Committee’s Democrats in a polished and calm performance.
Gorsuch — sprinkling his answers to the committee’s questions with “gosh” and “golly” and “goodness” — deftly dodged Democratic senators’ attempts to pin him down on abortion, the scope of the Second Amendment and the Citizens United campaign finance decision. He said it would be “grossly improper” for a judge to offer a preview of how he would rule in future cases.
The 49-year-old Colorado judge also repeatedly insisted he would maintain his independence from President Trump and said no one in the administration had asked him to promise to rule a certain way on cases once he got to the court–neutralizing one of Democrats’ main lines of attack against him.
“I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said when asked if Trump had asked him to help overturn Roe v. Wade, the case that ruled that women have the right to get an abortion. “It’s not what judges do.”
But Democrats homed in on Gorsuch’s reticence to discuss Roe further, noting Trump’s vow during the 2016 presidential campaign to appoint a nominee who would overturn it.
Again and again, Gorsuch kept his cards close to his chest as Democrats on the committee attempted to discern his personal beliefs on the issues of the day. Sen. Dick Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked Gorsuch if he agreed with the Supreme Court decisions that made it illegal for the government to ban married couples, and later unmarried people, from using contraception.
“Those are precedents of the United States Supreme Court,” Gorsuch replied. “They’ve been settled 50 years, in the case of Griswold.”
Blumenthal chastised him for not giving a simple yes or no, pointing out that Bush appointees Samuel Alito and John Roberts both said they agreed with the results of the contraception cases during their Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“I just want to say I hope that when we resume questioning that perhaps you can give me somewhat more direct and unequivocal answers,” Blumenthal said.
When pressed by senators, Gorsuch referred to Supreme Court cases such as Roe v. Wade, Citizens United and the decision striking down a city’s handgun ban as “precedents of the United States Supreme Court.” Gorsuch said precedent deserves deference from judges. He went slightly further when asked about the 2015 decision on same-sex marriage, calling marriage equality “settled law.” He also refused to say whether he believed the Constitution prevented the government from banning people of a certain religion from entering the country, saying he thought it was a veiled attempt to get him to weigh in on Trump’s travel ban.
Gorsuch defended himself from charges by Democrats that he was being evasive, pointing out that previous Supreme Court nominees from both parties followed the same standard of not commenting on political controversies or cases they may later rule on.
Asked to respond to Trump’s attacks on judges who have ruled against him, Gorsuch said he finds any questioning of a federal judge’s integrity to be “disheartening” and “demoralizing.” He also repeatedly said that “no man is above the law” when asked if he would be willing to rule against the president from the bench.
“When I became a judge, they gave me a gavel not a rubber stamp,” Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch also told Blumenthal that Trump had briefly mentioned abortion when he met the president, but did not bring up Roe v. Wade by name.
“He knew I was from Colorado and he was disappointed he lost Colorado [in the election],” Gorsuch said. “He said something like if he had a little more time [in the state] he thinks he might have won. And then he said that one of the topics that came up during the campaign was abortion and that it was divisive and split people evenly.”
In sharp contrast, Republicans on the committee repeatedly praised Gorsuch, with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham even expressing relief that Trump had picked him. Graham said he had been worried Trump would pick somebody “from TV.”
Several of the Republicans on the committee tossed Gorsuch softballs, asking him about the biggest trout he ever caught, if he wore a tank top under his robe, how he managed to avoid going to the bathroom for hours during the hearing and what his former boss’ jump shot was like.
“I can tell by today that you are a man of extraordinary patience,” Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., remarked near the end of the marathon proceedings. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., urged him to have a “cocktail.”
Gorsuch betrayed a rare moment of annoyance when asked by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., whether he regretted the large amounts of money spent by outside political groups to boost his nomination. “There’s a great deal about this process I regret,” Gorsuch responded. “I regret putting my family through this.”
But Democrats did not appear to hit upon any cohesive line of attack that rattled Gorsuch, raising questions about whether they will attempt to block his nomination by not voting for his nomination to proceed, as some of them have threatened. That would require nearly all Democrats to stick together and oppose the judge. Gorsuch effectively neutralized their attack that he would not be independent from Trump, as well as rattling off a long list of cases where he ruled for the “little guy” to rebut Democrats’ charge that he’s a cold friend to corporations on the bench.
When the hearing reconvenes Wednesday, Democrats are likely to press Gorsuch on his time as the third-ranking official at the Justice Department under President George W. Bush. Several of them confronted Gorsuch with his past emails and documents from that time in which he replied in the affirmative to a question about whether the Bush administration’s “aggressive” interrogation techniques had elicited valuable intelligence.
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