Neil Gorsuch is a judge in the “Scalia mold,” and his liberal students love him

5 min. read
U.S. Supreme Court (Josh Berglund/Flickr)

Update: And it is Gorsuch.

A judge who sits on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and makes his home in liberal Boulder is considered a top contender for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court pick.

Neil Gorsuch, just 49, is described as a strict originalist, as well as a clear writer whose opinions are easy to understand. He sided with Hobby Lobby when that company cited religious reasons for excluding certain types of birth control from the employee insurance package, and he has challenged the authority of regulatory agencies to decide what the law means. Gorsuch opposes assisted suicide and euthanasia.

During his confirmation hearings for the Court of Appeals, though, he did not want to be "pigeon-holed." (Who does, though?)

"I resist pigeon holes. I think those are not terribly helpful, pigeon-holing someone as having this philosophy or that philosophy,” he said, according to an online transcript. "People do unexpected things and pigeon holes ignore gray areas in the law, of which there are a great many."

President Donald Trump is expected to announce his choice Tuesday evening. In less contentious times, Gorsuch might be a shoe-in. There is no question about his qualifications; when he was appointed to the appellate court by President George W. Bush, he was confirmed with a unanimous voice vote.

But whomever Trump picks, this could turn into a big fight. Senate Democrats still have access to the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, unlike other cabinet positions, and they are promising to use it. They're angry that Senate Republicans maintained an unprecedented 10-month blockade on President Barack Obama's nominee, Merrick Garland, another eminently qualified appellate judge.

"This is a stolen seat. This is the first time a Senate majority has stolen a seat,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley told Politico. "We will use every lever in our power to stop this."

So who is Neil Gorsuch?

Alex Burness at the Daily Camera spoke to attorneys and students in Boulder and found they all had great respect for Gorsuch. They used words like "brilliant," "thoughtful" and "charming."

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett, a Democrat, described Gorsuch as "very ethical" and "very smart."

And CU law student and liberal activist Jordan Henry said: "I found him to be a person of character and quality, intellectually curious and willing to debate all sides. I think he's dedicated to the truth, to justice, to the justice system.

"I may not always agree with him but I do think he gives all voices a fair hearing, and that's all you can ask of a judge."

Gorsuch is an avid skier and fly fisherman, and he also rides his horses. He's married with two daughters. His mother was Anne Gorsuch, who ran the EPA under President Ronald Reagan.

Colleagues described him as charismatic and down-to-earth, without the abrasiveness that characterized Scalia.

Newsweek highlighted some of Gorsuch's rulings on key cases. If you go over there, you can see how he compares to the other people on the short list.

Gorsuch has questioned the "Chevron doctrine," under which courts generally defer to a regulatory agency's interpretation of the language of a law. In a concurring opinion he wrote in August 2016, for Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch, he called the doctrine the “elephant in the room” and suggested allowing “executive bureaucracies to swallow huge amounts of core judicial and legislative power and concentrate federal power in a way that seems more than a little difficult to square with the Constitution of the framers’ design. Maybe the time has come to face the behemoth.”

According to SCOTUSBlog, Gorsuch's take on the Chevron doctrine distinguishes him from Scalia more than his readings on other issues. And like Scalia, he can sometimes be a friend to criminal defendants. In one ruling involving a felon in knowing possession of a handgun, he questioned the conviction not on the basis of whether the man knew he had a gun -- obviously he did -- but whether he knew he was a felon.

From the right, Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, described Gorsuch as fitting the "Scalia mold." 

"I think conservatives would consider him to be an exciting pick," he told Newsweek. "I think it’s fair to say he’s a leader in terms of conservative jurisprudence and I think he quickly would become a strong voice on the court for his constitutional approach to decision making."

From the left, well, Gorsuch would probably make a lot of rulings liberals disagree with.

Marge Baker, executive vice president of People for the American Way, told Newsweek that Gorsuch's record "clearly shows that he puts his own ideological views above the Constitution and laws."

"His decisions routinely support the interests of corporations over those of everyday Americans," she said. "If appointed and confirmed to our nation’s highest bench, he’d seriously endanger civil rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights."

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