Neil McGill Gorsuch of Colorado is poised Friday to win confirmation as the 113th justice of the Supreme Court, completing a 419-day odyssey that stretched from the death of Justice Antonin Scalia and the denial of President Obama's nominee to a Senate rules change known as the "nuclear option."
Gorsuch, 49, a conservative judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, is expected to win Senate confirmation largely along party lines after a day in which Democrats mounted a successful partisan filibuster of his nomination and Republicans eliminated the 60-vote threshold that threatened to block final action.
The final vote, expected to be 55-45, won't put Gorsuch on the high court immediately. He still must be sworn in at the court and the White House, most likely early next week. He then would attend his first private conference with the other eight justices on Thursday and sit for the next round of oral arguments that begins April 17, including an important case on the separation of church and state.
But beyond the immediate logistics, the conclusion of the 14-month-long process will have a major impact on all three branches of government. It will bring the court back to full strength following a period in which it deadlocked on four cases, delayed others and avoided sweeping rulings. It will leave the Senate deeply riven, both politically and procedurally, after bitter battles over not one but two nominees. And it will give President Trump his first major achievement amid continuing imbroglios over health care, immigration and the White House's ties to Russia.
On Thursday, Republicans invoked the 'nuclear option,' changing the Senate's filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominees so that only a simple majority of senators - rather than 60 - is needed to end debate.
Republicans and their conservative allies were in celebration mode as the clock ticked down to the final vote Friday. To them, Gorsuch epitomizes the type of judge who decides cases based on the Constitution, the law and past precedents, rather than personal opinion or ideology.
“He is a jurist of the highest character and integrity," said Leonard Leo, who took a leave of absence from the conservative Federalist Society to help with the confirmation process. "He believes deeply in neutral, impartial decision-making, and he is deeply committed to a Constitution whose limits on judicial and government power inextricably intertwine with the preservation of human freedom.”
Democrats and their liberal allies were desultory after losing not only the confirmation battle but the minority party's right to block high court nominations with just 41 votes. They fear Gorsuch will align himself with the court's other conservatives on issues ranging from employment discrimination to reproductive rights.
“I think this guy’s going to do really bad things on the court,” said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. "The country will be worse off
Erudite but evasive during more than 20 hours of testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, Gorsuch largely skated through a Senate process that tripped up Merrick Garland, Obama's nominee, from the get-go. Senate Republicans' refusal to consider Garland — chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, a traditional steppingstone to the Supreme Court — colored Democrats' reception to Gorsuch since his nomination Jan. 31.
A graduate of Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the University of Oxford, Gorsuch arrived at the Senate with a glamorous pedigree. His mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Reagan administration until she was forced out following a dispute with Congress. He clerked for two Supreme Court justices before embarking on a legal career that included a high-ranking Justice Department post.
For the past 10-plus years on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch has developed a reputation as a strict "textualist" and "originalist" — like Scalia, someone who reads statutes and the Constitution literally and seeks to interpret them through the eyes of their authors. He is known as a expansive thinker and a facile writer whose law clerks often go on to bigger and better things — including similar postings at the Supreme Court.
Trump's choice of Gorsuch from a list of 21 potential nominees created in conjunction with the Federalist Society and equally conservative Heritage Foundation soothed Republicans but enraged Democrats, who also complained about "dark money" spent on his behalf by other right-wing groups during the confirmation process. In the end, the campaign on Gorsuch's behalf helped to unite Republicans but wooed less than a handful of Democrats to his side, leaving Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to deploy the nuclear option.
“Judge Gorsuch is independent and fair, he’s beyond qualified, and he’ll make a stellar addition to the Supreme Court," McConnell said Thursday. "Hardly anyone in the legal community seems to argue otherwise."
Democrats, however, argued that his record on the Denver-based court shows an inclination to side with corporations against "the little guy," as in an oft-ridiculed dissent against a truck driver who left his disabled trailer in freezing weather, and a decision against the family of an autistic boy seeking public funds to send him to private school.
“Judge Gorsuch's record says a lot about his judgment and his sense of justice,” Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the dean of the Senate, said.
With Gorsuch headed to the high court, attention quickly will turn to the possibility of more vacancies during Trump's time in the White House. Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch once clerked, is 80 and said to be contemplating retirement. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer are 84 and 78, respectively. If Trump gets to replace any of them, the court could swing much further to the right.
And with the Senate's rules changed to eliminate the minority party's power, “The president no longer needs to garner support from any Democrats,” says John Malcolm, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Republicans may be more emboldened to nominate more judges that have a conservative track record.”
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