Justice Neil M. Gorsuch was officially sworn in Monday as the 113th justice to the Supreme Court after he was confirmed last week when Senate Republicans voted to change the rules of the confirmation vote threshold.
In an unprecedented decision, Senate Republicans bypassed a Democratic filibuster to proceed to a final confirmation vote for Gorsuch.
“I have no doubt you will go down as one of the truly great justices in the history of the U.S.,” President Donald Trump said during the confirmation ceremony on Monday.
The Senate voted along party lines to stop filibusters of Supreme Court nominations with only a simple majority needed, requiring only 51 votes rather than the previous 60.
A following cloture vote halted any further debate on the Senate floor as they voted 55-45 to move onto a final vote on April 6.
“This will be the first, and last, partisan filibuster of a Supreme Court nomination,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on the Senate floor, according to The Washington Post.
The decision came after a year of rising tensions surrounding the empty seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Republicans refused to consider former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick B. Garland last March. Consequently, Garland never received a hearing for the position, and instead, Trump nominated Gorsuch once he took office.
“It seems more like a power struggle, rather than doing what’s best for the country,” said Mona Khemici, SF State Queer Alliance member and anthropology major, about Senate Republicans changing the rules.
Some speculate the Republican’s decision to embrace a “nuclear option” will change the Supreme Court selection process and allow more ideologically extreme judges in the future.
“In 20 or 30 or 40 years, we will sadly point to today as a turning point in the history of the Senate and the Supreme Court, a day when we irrevocably moved further away from the principles our founders intended for these institutions: principles of bipartisanship, moderation and consensus,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said on the Senate floor, according to Fortune 500.
Senate Democrats, including Schumer, argued that Gorsuch has a right-wing and corporate interest agenda, which they feel justified the filibuster against his confirmation. An emphasis on ideological concerns took center stage during Gorsuch’s hearing and also among left-leaning SF State students.
“More gay rights may be ignored,” said Milan Barranco, a freshman member of SF State’s Queer Alliance. “Having Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is going to change America for decades.”
Martin Carcieri, SF State professor of political science specializing in public law and political theory, believes Senate Democrats should have been more straightforward about the primary motive behind their actions.
“I’m not sure that this was about Gorsuch being outside of the mainstream, I suspect what it was really about was Merrick Garland,” Carcieri said. “In ten years on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch was with the majority like 99 percent of the time. With facts like that, it’s very hard to say he’s outside of the mainstream.”
Gorsuch carries a reputation for interpreting the law based on its original intent, which has been shown in his past rulings and may reveal his stance on future cases heard by the court.
“Gorsuch will follow the Constitution for what it says, and that’s what the judges should be doing,” said Brian May, vice president of SF State’s Republican Student Union. “Any person that Trump would have put up, the Democrats would have filibustered.”
During his first week on the Supreme Court, Gorsuch will hear Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer, a case dealing with the controversial issue of church versus state.
Several of his past rulings have indicated he favors religious freedom. Gorsuch is most known to the public for the opinion he wrote stating the Affordable Care Act cannot require Hobby Lobby to cover contraceptives with the health insurance provided to employees because the practice goes against their religious beliefs.
In a case he dissented in 2012, United States v. Games-Perez, Gorsuch illustrated his dedication to interpreting the law as it is written. Miguel Games-Perez possessed a gun after being convicted of a felony, which is against federal law, but claimed he did not know he was a felon.
The court held there was enough evidence for a conviction because Games-Perez knowingly possessed a gun, whether or not he knew he was a felon.
Gorsuch disagreed and argued the law is clearly written that a person must know they are both a felon and possessing a gun, which he said Games-Perez did not meet both requirements.
In 2006, Gorsuch wrote a book titled The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, which built an argument against the legalization of medical aid in a person’s personal decision to die. Though his past decisions have upheld the death penalty, such as in Eizember v. Trammell, Gorsuch showed he may not uphold death when it pertains to an individual’s choice.
“He clearly is not a liberal in the sense of somebody who errs on the side of liberty. The law of death is going to be changing in the years to come,” Carcieri said.
Gorsuch’s opinion on assisted suicide may suggest how he would rule on an abortion case, though he has not yet ruled on a case that would reveal his stance definitively.
“Based on the principle that it’s always wrong for private individuals, as opposed to government, to take human life, then I would think by definition he thinks Roe v. Wade is wrong,” Carcieri said.
Though Democrats have expressed ideological concerns over Trump’s Supreme Court pick, it is widely believed Gorsuch is well-qualified for the job.
Gorsuch received his undergrad at Columbia University and went on to pursue his doctorate at Harvard and Oxford in jurisprudence and philosophy, respectively. Gorsuch graduated from Harvard Law School in 1991 in the same class as President Obama.
Gorsuch worked for years as a law clerk in private practice, and then as a principal deputy to the associate attorney general of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“One thing Trump has gotten right is Gorsuch, in terms of having a smart, young, conservative on the court,” Carcieri said. “He nailed it. Anybody who’s been a Supreme Court law clerk has the intellectual qualification to be on the Supreme Court.”
He was then nominated by former President George W. Bush to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado in 2006, where he served until his nomination for Supreme Court. Based on his track record, it is hard to tell how he will rule on many future Supreme Court cases.
“Gorsuch has not ruled on that many major constitutional issues that come before the court,” Carcieri said. “Even among justices who we think we know pretty well, depending on the case that comes up, they end up aligning with each other in very strange ways.”