Democrats Assail Gorsuch in Partisan Clash Over Supreme Court

  • They see a pattern of rulings in favor of the powerful
  • High court nominee promises to be ‘neutral and independent’

Will Judge Gorsuch Need a Nuclear Option to Be Confirmed?

Neil Gorsuch promised to be a "neutral and independent" U.S. Supreme Court justice. So far Senate Democrats don’t seem convinced.

A marathon day of questioning is set for Tuesday on the second day of his confirmation hearing. Democrats said they will hold Gorsuch to a higher standard than previous Supreme Court nominees, in part because of last year’s successful Republican blockade of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the seat that has been open since February 2016.

"In ordinary circumstances, you should enjoy the benefit of the doubt based on your qualifications, but several things have gone wrong that shift the benefit of the doubt," Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told Gorsuch.

Gorsuch left behind a partisan gulf as he finished day one. Republicans hailed the appellate judge as a careful arbiter of the law, while Democrats said he goes out of his way to issue sweeping rulings in favor of powerful institutions.

Democrats say they fear Gorsuch will reinstate a conservative Supreme Court majority that over the past decade has voted 5-4 to roll back protections for consumers, workers and racial minorities, while giving corporations new rights. He is President Donald Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.

QuickTake on Gorsuch and the U.S. Supreme Court

Gorsuch was full of smiles as he took his seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee and, during his 16-minute opening statement, made a handful of self-effacing jokes. He hailed the justice he would succeed, the late conservative icon Antonin Scalia, as well as the more moderate Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch once clerked.

He cast himself as a judge willing to rule however the law required, highlighting cases where he landed on the side of individuals.

"I have decided for Native Americans seeking to protect tribal lands, for class actions like one that ensured compensation for victims of a nuclear waste pollution problem produced by corporations in Colorado," Gorsuch said. "I’ve ruled for disabled students, for prisoners, for the accused, for workers alleging civil rights violations and for undocumented immigrants."

Gorsuch’s task will get harder Tuesday as he begins what is expected to be two days of questioning. The session will begin at 9:30 Washington time and could last into the evening.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal told reporters after Monday’s opening statements, "Believe me, we’re going to be aggressive and tough in our questioning."

‘Nuclear Option’

Still, Democrats will be hard-pressed to stop Gorsuch’s nomination given Republicans’ 52-48 control of the Senate. Under current rules Democrats need only 41 votes to filibuster the nomination, but Republicans could change those rules with a simple majority vote, an approach that has become known as the "nuclear option."

Republicans are united behind the nominee, who has served on a federal appeals court in Denver since being appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006. Gorsuch has degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Oxford.

"You may not like the view he has of law, but I’m dying to hear somebody over there tell me why he’s not qualified to be sitting here," Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said.

Democrats say their problems with Gorsuch stem from his rulings, not his credentials.

"In case after case, you either dismissed or rejected efforts by workers and families to recognize their rights or defend their freedoms," Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois told the nominee.

Balls and Strikes

The Supreme Court confirmation process has grown steadily more partisan since half of the Senate’s Democrats voted to confirm John Roberts as chief justice in 2005. Roberts had promised he would be like a baseball umpire, merely calling balls and strikes.

Instead, Whitehouse said Monday, Roberts "led his five-person Republican majority on that activist, 5-4, political shopping spree."

Republicans say Democrats are politicizing the judiciary by focusing on the results a judge reaches rather than the reasoning behind the decision.

"You will scratch your head when you hear this because it’s as if you judges write the laws instead of us senators," Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa told Gorsuch. "But if Congress passes a bad law, as a judge, you are not allowed to just pretend that we passed a good law."

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