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It has finally happened. Justice Neil Gorsuch has ascended to the Supreme Court as an Associate Justice. It took over two months, and historic political wrangling, but at 11:30 AM today, the votes came in. The Senate confirmed now-Justice Gorsuch in a 54-45 vote, with two democrats breaking ranks with their party to support the jurist.
Who is Justice Gorsuch?
Neil Gorsuch, forty-nine years old, graduated cum laude from Harvard Law in 1991, and later acquired a doctorate of philosophy from Oxford University. In his early career, Gorsuch clerked for Justices White and Kennedy. Gorsuch went on to work private practice as a trial attorney for a decade. He went on to serve a brief stint in the US Justice Department during the Bush Administration. Gorsuch was then nominated to the US Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit by President Bush. Where he was confirmed by a unanimous voice vote.
While serving on the 10th Circuit, Judge Gorsuch sided with the majority in ninety-nine percent of cases and took part in unanimous decisions in ninety-seven percent of cases. Despite this consensus, Gorsuch still distinguished himself in his opinions and rare dissents. His most notable case was Hobby Lobby Stores v. Sebelius (2013), in which his court ruled that the closely held corporation had the ability to refuse certain types of birth control on grounds of religious freedom. The Supreme Court later upheld this ruling in a 5-4 decision.
Justice Gorsuch is also notable for calling into question the ‘Chevron Doctrine’. This doctrine holds that courts should grant a significant level of deference to administrative agencies. The rationale behind this being that agency experts should have the ability to interpret vague laws in a way that they believe would allow them to fulfill their mission. Then-Judge Gorsuch attacked the Chevron Doctrine in at least one official holding and one concurrence.
Neil Gorsuch v. Senate Judiciary Committee
President Donald Trump nominated Gorsuch to the court on January 31st to replace the deceased Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away the previous February. Judge Gorsuch was met with immediate opposition from Democrats and left-wing activist groups. Some even carried fill-in-the-blank signs. This reaction, unfortunately, set the tone for the entire confirmation process.
Gorsuch’s hearings began with a day of opening statements. In effect, this meant around eight hours of Senators of both parties grandstanding, and Gorsuch delivering a short statement at the end. Committee Republicans hailed Gorsuch as a paragon of the Constitution and written law. Democrats on the committee responded by attacking Gorsuch’s stances on Hobby Lobby, Chevron, and a few other issues. They also complained about Merrick Garland, a lot.
In the following days of the hearing, Gorsuch fielded accusatory questions from Democrats and repeated softballs from Republicans. Gorsuch was nothing, if not consistent. When questioned about previous decisions, Gorsuch gave detailed answers explaining his legal reasoning. At times, these explanations led to ridiculous exchanges, including former comedian Sen. Franken (MN) attempting to stump Gorsuch on legal principles (pocket sized book in hand).
When questioned about ongoing issues such as Pres. Trump’s travel bans, Gorsuch was careful not to give much away. He was clear that he could not give answers regarding specific cases, but did give an explanation on how the Constitution may guide such a decision. Gorsuch was also questioned about certain precedents such as District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and Roe v. Wade (1973). Again, Gorsuch did not confirm how he would rule on specific cases, but stated that both were important precedents.
The Committee voted along party lines to approve Gorsuch, 11-9.
Senate Democrats Attempt to Block Judge Gorsuch
Following the committee’s vote, Senate Democrats did what everyone expected them to do, attempt to filibuster Judge Gorsuch. Led by Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY), Democrats gave various paper thin justifications for their decision to support a filibuster. Most of them essentially boiled down to two things: Donald Trump and Merrick Garland. Neil Gorsuch did not appear to factor much in their decision making.
These efforts, however, failed. While Democrats managed to hold their caucus together and maintain the forty-one required votes to maintain a filibuster, Republicans finished the process started by Democrats during the Obama Administration: ‘The Nuclear Option’.
The nuclear option is a nickname for changing the Senate rules to allow nominees to pass on a simple majority vote, instead of the sixty votes previously required. On April 6th, Senate Republicans pushed the rule change along a party line vote, 52-48.
This long and convoluted series of events leads to now. Following the rule change, Neil Gorsuch has been confirmed to the Supreme Court by a 54-45 vote. Gorsuch replacing the late-Justice Scalia. This will be among the most important moments of the Trump Presidency. Not only does it put a staunch originalist on the bench for at least thirty years, but it has fundamentally shifted how the United States Senate functions.
Historians will write about this event, for good and ill.