WASHINGTON — The Senate Friday had enough votes to confirm Neil Gorsuch, a 49-year-old federal judge who could help cement a conservative majority on the bench for decades, to the Supreme Court.
The court has been operating with eight justices since the sudden death in February 2016 of Justice Antonin Scalia and a protracted fight over President Barack Obama‘s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
Senate Republicans refused to consider Garland’s nomination until after the November election, and Donald Trump‘s surprise win meant a conservative would succeed Scalia.
Gorsuch’s confirmation essentially continues the ideological balance that existed before Scalia’s death, with four conservatives, four liberals and Justice Anthony Kennedy as a swing vote between the blocs. At the same time, several justices are over 70 years of age, and retirement rumors surrounding Kennedy could give Trump other opportunities during his presidency to add to the conservative bloc.
“He has sterling credentials, an excellent record and an ideal judicial temperament,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He has the independence of mind for fairness”
Democrats consistently tried to tie Gorsuch to Trump, suggesting he won’t be independent from the President who nominated him.
“I hope Judge Gorsuch has listened to our debate here in the Senate, particularly about our concerns about the Supreme Court increasingly drifting towards becoming a more pro-corporate court that favors employers, corporations and special interests over working Americans,” said Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. “So we are charging Judge Gorsuch to be the independent and fair-minded justice that America badly needs. If he is instead a justice for the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, that will spell trouble for America.”
During his Senate hearings last month, Gorsuch sought to address those attacks head-on, insisting he “doesn’t give a whit” about politics, and that he treats his plaintiffs fairly.
Democrats eventually staged a filibuster of Gorsuch this week, leading Senate Republicans triggered the so-called “nuclear option.” The move changed Senate rules to allow them to break the filibuster with only 51 votes rather than the traditional 60, something senators on both sides of the aisle said could change the chamber’s role in the political sphere.
But despite the opposition to Gorsuch, his confirmation was never seriously in doubt and he flew remarkably under the radar.
After Trump nominated Gorsuch on January 31, he essentially enjoyed a stealth confirmation process, as near daily stories from the White House overshadowed the fight. Democrats were often drowned out and distracted by issues ranging from the investigation over Russia’s activities in the 2016 presidential election to the March effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
Gorsuch’s conservative bona fides
Gorsuch’s opinions on religious liberty, where he sided with the challengers to the so-called Obamacare contraceptive mandate, and on the separation of powers, where he said too much deference was given by the courts to administrative agencies, are key to his appeal to Trump and Republicans.
During his time on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, Gorsuch joined an opinion siding with closely held corporations who believed that the so-called contraceptive mandate of Obamacare violated their religious beliefs. The ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court. Gorsuch wrote separately holding that the mandate infringed upon the owners’ religious beliefs “requiring them to lend what their religion teaches to be an impermissible degree of assistance to the commission of what their religion teaches to be a moral wrong.”
He also wrote a majority opinion in a separation of powers case holding that too much deference was given to administrative agencies. This issue is a favorite of conservatives and Gorsuch’s beliefs align with those of Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas.
Gorsuch, in a speech last year at Case Western Reserve University School of law, aligned himself with Scalia’s judicial philosophy.
“The great project of Justice Scalia’s career was to remind us of the differences between judges and legislators. To remind us that legislators may appeal to their own moral convictions and to claims about social utility to reshape the law as they think it should be in the future, ” he said. “But that judges should do none of these things in a democratic society.”
While Gorsuch is a fourth-generation Coloradan, his confirmation means a return to Washington and the Supreme Court.
He is a former clerk to both Justices Byron White and Kennedy.
He also spent part of his youth in Washington when his mother, Anne Gorsuch Burford, served in the Reagan administration as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
She resigned in 1983 under controversy after refusing to turn over toxic waste records to Congress.
He served as a partner at a prestigious Washington Law firm, Kellogg, Huber as well as Principal Deputy Associate Attorney General.
Gorsuch and his wife, Louise, have two daughters. They currently live in Boulder, Colorado.