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Gorsuch Avoids Missteps at Supreme Court Hearing

“I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party”

Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch testifies on the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Hart Building, March 21, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Supreme Court Justice nominee Neil Gorsuch testifies on the second day of his Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing in Hart Building, March 21, 2017. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch spent 11 hours Tuesday abstaining from giving personal opinions on controversial issues and reassuring critics that he isn’t beholden to President Donald Trump, generally avoiding the kind of major slip that could trip up his confirmation.

Gorsuch adopted a solemn tone at times and tried to add dashes of levity at others, as he fielded gentle Republican questions and fended off Democratic queries on abortion rights, campaign finance and his previous decisions on administrative law and workers rights.

But in the tradition of the Supreme Court nominees before him, the 49-year-old appeals court judge from Colorado took pains to avoid revealing too much under the glare of the television cameras stationed at the Senate Judiciary Committee or risk his impartiality.

[Gorsuch: I Would Have ‘No Difficulty’ Ruling Against Trump]

“Any revelation about my personal views about this matter would indicate to people how I might rule on this as a judge,” Gorsuch said when Minnesota Democrat Al Franken asked him about a 2004 Ohio referendum on marriage being only between a man and a woman. “Mistakenly, but it might, and I have to be concerned about that.”

Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, the last Democrat to ask questions, told Gorsuch that he has “provided us less in the way of answers about the way you would approach cases than previous nominees to the Supreme Court.”

The trend is likely to continue Wednesday when Gorsuch faces more questions in the weeklong hearing in what could be a major political victory for Trump. Democrats are powerless to stop Gorsuch from joining the Supreme Court without help from Republicans, who appear solidly behind the conservative jurist tapped to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

A committee vote is expected April 3.

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Law and precedent

Gorsuch said repeatedly Tuesday that he wouldn’t speak about legal issues that might come before him, telling Democrats that he would only judge cases once they appear before him to keep an impartial reputation.

“The bottom line, I think, is that I’d like to convey to you from the bottom of my heart, is that I’m a fair judge,” Gorsuch testified. “I can’t guarantee you more than that, but I can promise you absolutely nothing less.”

When Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the panel’s top Democrat, pressed for his opinion about a Second Amendment gun rights case, Gorsuch said: “It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, senator, respectfully, it’s a matter of it being the law. My job is to apply and enforce the law.”

Gorsuch was more direct, however, when he sought to emphasize his independence from Trump.

Even as Gorsuch testified, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York spoke on the Senate floor in an effort to connect the Supreme Court nominee with the president who picked him.

Democrats have expressed concerns after Trump’s controversial travel and refugee ban and the president’s criticisms of federal judges that they say show a lack of respect for the role of the judiciary.

Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley set the tone for the day when he asked during the morning session if Gorsuch would have trouble ruling against Trump. 

“I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party, other than what the law and the facts in a particular case require,” Gorsuch replied.

Democrats are concerned about Gorsuch’s commitment to upholding Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to abortion, since Trump the candidate pledged he would nominate a Supreme Court justice who would overturn that landmark ruling.

Gorsuch testified that Trump never asked him if he would overturn Roe v. Wade and, if he had, “I would have walked out the door. That’s not what judges do.”

Later, Franken said Gorsuch’s pledge to only follow the law and Supreme Court precedents was belied by the Trump administration and other conservatives, who had expectations of how he would reverse course on several long-standing legal issues.

“I think some of those signals have already been sent,” Franken said

No promises

Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick J. Leahy pressed Gorsuch on his views about religious tests, mentioning that a Republican lawmaker said Gorsuch’s confirmation would be the best thing to help Trump’s efforts aimed at temporarily blocking certain immigrants, refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.

Trump called it a “Muslim ban” during the campaign and critics say it infringes on religious freedom. Lawsuits have challenged Trump’s original order as well as a revised one that is narrower in scope.

“Senator, a lot of people say a lot of silly things,” Gorsuch said. “He has no idea how I’d rule in that case. And, senator, I’m not going to say anything here that would give anybody any idea how I would rule in any case like that that could come before the Supreme Court or my court, the 10th Circuit.”

It would be grossly improper “if someone sitting at this table, in order to get confirmed, had to make promises or commitments about how they would rule in a case that is currently pending and likely to make its way to the Supreme Court,” Gorsuch said.

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