By Laura Litvan and Greg Stohr, Bloomberg News
Senate Democrats cast U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch as outside the mainstream while a top Republican praised his “unfailing commitment” to the law at the start of what promises to be a divisive hearing over a year-old vacancy.
“The judge’s job, our nominee says, is to deliver on the promise that ‘all litigants, rich or poor, mighty or meek, will receive equal protection under the law and due process for their grievances,’” Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said Monday in Washington.
Gorsuch, 49, President Donald Trump’s first nominee to the nation’s highest court, is a heavy favorite for confirmation given Republicans’ 52-48 Senate majority. He will make an opening statement later Monday after comments from the other Judiciary Committee members.
Grassley said the committee plans to vote April 3, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he’s confident Gorsuch will be confirmed before a mid-April Senate recess. The Supreme Court hears the final arguments of its current term later that month.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the panel’s top Democrat, said the panel should try to determine whether Gorsuch is “a reasonable mainstream conservative.” She said that while the judge hasn’t ruled on abortion, his writings “raise questions” about whether he would adhere to Supreme Court precedents protecting abortion rights. The high court’s multiple rulings upholding the core right to abortion amount to a “super- precedent,” she said.
Second-ranking Senate Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois told Gorsuch, “In case after case, you’ve either dismissed or rejected the efforts of workers and families to recognize their rights or defend their freedoms.”
Gorsuch was all smiles as he greeted senators and audience members before the session began. As dozens of photographers took his picture after he sat down, he got a laugh from the room by turning toward the crowd, raising his hands and grinning.
In two days of questioning by Judiciary Committee members that will begin Tuesday, Gorsuch will try to avoid saying anything controversial and sidestep attempts by Democrats to pin him down on the most pressing legal issues that might come before the court.
Democrats and liberal interest groups are trying to make the case that Gorsuch’s decade on a federal appeals court in Denver shows that he favors powerful institutions at the expense of average people.
Gorsuch, if elevated, would become the youngest justice since 43-year-old Clarence Thomas joined the court in 1991.
He will get plenty of help from Republicans who say the only pattern he’s shown is his adherence to what the law requires.
Grassley said to the judge at the start of the hearing: “If you hear that you’re for some business or against some plaintiff — don’t worry. We’ve heard all of that stuff before.”
Feinstein, of California, on Monday faulted Gorsuch for voting against a truck driver who was fired for abandoning his trailer on the side of a road after waiting several hours in subzero temperatures for a repair truck. Gorsuch said the trucking company didn’t violate federal law.
In a statement Friday, she called Gorsuch an “activist, extremist judge” who has often advocated departing from judicial precedents. She also wants to take on Gorsuch’s earlier work as a top Justice Department official in 2005 and 2006 under President George W. Bush, when the administration was shaping anti-terrorism policies.
Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican and former Judiciary Committee chairman, said Democrats were wrong to argue that Gorsuch tended to rule against “the little guy.”
“Something is seriously wrong when the confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice resembles an election campaign for political office,” Hatch said.
Gorsuch would replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016. Democrats are angry that the Republican- controlled Senate refused to consider then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland. The court has operated with eight justices and at times has split 4-4 on cases, unable to reach a majority decision.
Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a top Democrat on the panel, said Senate Republicans, backed by Trump during his presidential campaign, engaged in an “extraordinary blockade” to keep Garland off the court. Trump has demonstrated hostility toward constitutional rights and has attacked individual judges who ruled against him, Leahy said, adding that Gorsuch must show his independence from Trump and interest groups that advocated for his elevation.
“I need to know that you understand the role of the courts in protecting the rights of all Americans, Leahy said. “I need to know that you can be an independent check and balance on the administration that has nominated you, and on any administration that might follow it.”
Gorsuch told lawmakers in private meetings he found Trump’s comments about the judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”
Leahy said he wants to hear him go further at the public hearing.
Democrats will be hard-pressed to stop Gorsuch’s nomination given Republican control. Under current rules, Democrats need only 41 votes to filibuster the nomination, but Republicans could eliminate the tactic for blocking Supreme Court appointments by going “nuclear” and changing the rules with a simple majority vote.
If that happens, Democrats could lose the powerful tool to block any other future high court nominees while Trump is in office. Three justices — Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg — are at least 78.
Outside groups including the pro-Gorsuch Judicial Crisis Network and the liberal People for the American Way are waging a grassroots battle to sway Democratic votes. A chief target: 10 Democrats from states Trump won in 2016 who will face voters in next year’s midterm elections. Some of them, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jon Tester of Montana, say they are open-minded about Gorsuch.
Some from Democratic-leaning states also are in play, including Chris Coons of Delaware and Angus King of Maine, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.
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