WASHINGTON—Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, sought to assure the Senate and the nation at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday that he would be a fair-minded and independent justice.
He said he would not hesitate to rule against Trump if the law required it, and he repeated his earlier private criticism of Trump’s attacks on judges who had ruled against the administration.
“When anyone criticizes the honesty or integrity or motives of a federal judge,” Gorsuch said, “I find that disheartening and demoralizing.”
Asked if that general statement applied to Trump, Gorsuch said, “Anyone is anyone.”
By turns expansive and evasive, Gorsuch discussed legal doctrines at length, but refused to take positions on specific issues. He asserted, as have previous Supreme Court nominees, that it would be unfair to future litigants for him to announce his views on issues that could come before the court.
Gorsuch’s style was folksy, earnest, learned and emphatic, and he easily dodged questions from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was not inclined to answer. But he spoke forcefully about his devotion to the rule of law.
His exchanges with Democratic senators were sometimes tense and testy. Yet through every planned line of attack — from his record on workers’ rights to his skepticism of the power of regulatory agencies — Gorsuch emerged with few scratches.
In response to questions from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Gorsuch expressed admiration for Judge Merrick Garland, president Barack Obama’s nominee for the same Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
He is “an outstanding judge,” Gorsuch said.
“Whenever I see his name attached to an opinion, it’s one I read with special care.”
But he refused to say whether Senate Republicans had mistreated Garland by refusing to consider his nomination for the better part of a year.
“I can’t get involved in politics,” Gorsuch said. “There’s judicial canons that prevent me from doing that. And I think it would be very imprudent of judges to start commenting on political disputes.”
Leahy had no such qualms. “I think it was shameful,” he said of the Republicans’ gambit. “I think it has severely damaged the reputation of the committee. I think it has severely damaged the reputation of the senators who concurred with that.”
On other questions, Gorsuch was less reserved. He did not hesitate, for instance, when asked to declare his independence from Trump.
“Specifically tell us whether you’d have any trouble ruling against the president who appointed you,” Sen. Charles Grassley, the Iowa Republican who leads the Judiciary Committee, instructed him.
“That’s a softball, Mr. Chairman,” Gorsuch said. “I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party, other than based on what the law and the facts and the particular case require.”
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would seek to appoint justices ready to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a constitutional right to abortion.
But Gorsuch said that no one from the White House asked him to make any commitments on legal issues that could come before the Supreme Court.
“I have offered no promises on how I’d rule in any case to anyone,” he said, “and I don’t think it’s appropriate for a judge to do so, no matter who’s doing the asking.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Gorsuch how he would have responded had Trump asked him to vote to overrule Roe during his interview at Trump Tower.
“Senator, I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said.
Asked about Roe and countless other Supreme Court decisions, Gorsuch responded with variations on a theme. The rulings were entitled to respect as precedents of the Supreme Court, he said, and should not be overturned lightly.
“If I were to start telling you which are my favourite precedents or which are my least favourite precedents or if I view a precedent in that fashion,” Gorsuch said, “I would be tipping my hand and suggesting to litigants that I’ve already made up my mind about their cases.”
Republicans largely used their questioning to help insulate Gorsuch from expected criticism, offering 30-minute safe harbours. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas was perhaps the most creative, coaxing Gorsuch to hold forth on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, judicial basketball games and the rodeo practice of “mutton busting.”
And for Democrats still straining to determine how aggressively to counter Gorsuch’s nomination, the proceedings Tuesday offered little help. At times, after fits of effective sidestepping from the nominee, they paused for several seconds to regroup, looking through their notes anew.
Efforts to make the hearings a referendum, in part, on Trump himself also faltered.
Leahy pressed Gorsuch on Trump’s order banning travel from several predominantly Muslim countries. “Senator, that’s an issue that’s currently being litigated actively, as you know,” Gorsuch said, declining to weigh in.
Leahy said that some Republicans had argued that a rapid confirmation for Gorsuch could represent the administration’s best chance of winning a case on this issue before the Supreme Court.
“Senator, a lot of people say a lot of silly things,” Gorsuch said, adding that anyone making that argument “has no idea how I’d rule in that case.” He said he would not tip his hand on Tuesday.
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