Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court began Monday with Democrats claiming he never should have been brought before senators in the first place.
Democrats also vowed to use four days of scheduled confirmation hearings to draw out Gorsuch on abortion rights, gun rights, religious rights, environmental protection and whether he would ever rule against the White House if presented with cases challenging the administration.
“You're going to have your hands full with this president. He's going to keep you busy,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) told Gorsuch.
Even before Gorsuch took questions, several Democrats angrily denounced Republicans for blocking consideration of U.S. Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, who had been President Barack Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the court. Scalia’s seat has been vacant for 13 months because Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) decided to block a hearing for Garland, saying that the next president should name the late justice’s successor.
“I'm deeply disappointed that it's under these circumstances that we begin our hearings,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that Gorsuch was nominated only because of the “unprecedented treatment” of Garland.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) on Monday called that decision “an extraordinary blockade” and “one of the greatest stains on the 200-year history of this committee.” He noted that the judiciary panel had once defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “court packing” — or attempts to expand the size of the Supreme Court in order to earn more favorable rulings.
“Now, Republicans are guilty of their own court-unpacking scheme in that their blocking of Merrick Garland was never grounded in principle or precedent,” Leahy added.
The 49-year old Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge from Colorado, was promoted by conservative legal activists because of his sterling credentials, a decade of right-of-center rulings and his allegiance to the same brand of constitutional interpretation that Scalia followed. In a sign of the bipartisan support he enjoys, Gorsuch was introduced by the senators from his home state of Colorado, Cory Gardner (R) and Michael Bennet (D) — who has not yet signaled whether he plans to vote for the judge — and Neil Katyal, who served as U.S. solicitor general for Obama.
The first day of hearings began with the panel’s chairman, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), vowing to refer Gorsuch to the full Senate by April 3.
“This is quite a lot different than the last time I was here,” Gorsuch joked as he introduced his family to the committee, contrasting the large crowd seated behind him in the hearing room with that at a far less controversial hearing in 2006 for him to serve on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Republicans cheered Gorsuch on Monday, acknowledging the strong Democratic attacks to come, but adding that the nomination came with broad public support.
“This will be more of an ordeal than for your last appointment,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) counseled Gorsuch as he read his opening statement.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said that Gorsuch’s nomination comes with “super-legitimacy” because he was on a list of potential court nominees that Trump touted during his presidential campaign.
“The American people played a very direct role in helping choose this nominee,” Cruz added.
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) dismissed Democratic claims of a grand Republican plan to nominate someone with similar views to Trump.
“If you believe this has been a great plan to get a Trump nominee on the court, then you had to believe Trump was going to win to begin with,” he said.
The frequent Trump critic added: “Obviously, I didn’t believe that, saying all the things I said.” Some in the room erupted in laughter.
Given Gorsuch’s genial demeanor and strong record, Senate Democrats face a stark dilemma — whether to take yet another stand against Trump’s administration and satisfy liberals upset with his efforts to strip away provisions of the Affordable Care Act, impose an entry ban on some immigrants and deeply cut federal agencies — or allow enough moderate Democrats to join with Republicans to confirm him.
In recent days, many Democrats on the judiciary panel said they will wait until the end of the hearings before determining how to proceed.
But they signaled on Monday that they will probe him on several fronts.
Feinstein said she would ask Gorsuch to clarify his beliefs on abortion rights and gun rights — two issues on which he’s never ruled, but issues that he has mentioned in passing in other legal opinions, she said.
She said she takes issue with Gorsuch’s originalist views on the Constitution because, “If we were to dogmatically adhere to originalist interpretations, then we would still have segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage. Women wouldn't be entitled to equal protection under the law, and government discrimination against LGBT Americans would be permitted.”
Durbin and Sen. Christopher Coons (D-Conn.) said they would push Gorsuch to clarify his views on religious freedoms and work. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said he planned to draw out the nominee on Trump’s “vicious” attacks on federal judges.
Gorsuch, looking tanned and interested, took notes Monday as some senators were speaking. He nodded his head at some of their statements, and smiled. When Durbin — after complaining about Garland’s treatment — said Gorsuch should nonetheless be judged on his own merits, Gorsuch silently mouthed, “thank you.”
Senators and their staffs also have been examining Gorsuch’s role as a high-ranking official in the U.S. Justice Department at the time the George W. Bush administration was dealing with Guantanamo Bay detainees, reports of torture and anti-terrorism policies.
A new trove of materials released over the weekend show Gorsuch playing a central role in coordinating legal and legislative strategy, but portraying himself as reconciling the many opinions of those in the administration rather than driving policy.
“I am but the scrivener looking for language that might please everybody,” he wrote in one email.
Gorsuch is poised to listen for several hours as members of the Judiciary Committee read opening statements. He is expected to deliver his opening statement by midafternoon, giving senators and the nation an early indication of how he might serve on the court.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Gorsuch is set to face at least 50 minutes of questioning by each member of the panel. The proceedings are expected to conclude Thursday with a panel of witnesses speaking for or against Gorsuch.
In one of the day's lighter moments, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) acknowledged that Gorsuch is still widely unknown by most Americans by recalling how the nominee’s name had been misspelled in recent remarks he was reading off a teleprompter.
"Your name wasn't as familiar as some. And it replaced it with ‘Judge Grouch,’" Flake said of the teleprompter, drawing laughs from the crowd.
By the end of this week, "every spell-checker in the country will know your name -- and Judge Grouch is about as far as you can get from Judge Gorsuch in terms of your temperament,” Flake said.
He then quipped: "That may change by the end of the week as well."