WASHINGTON — Senators grilled U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch during a daylong hearing Tuesday at which the appellate judge refused to reveal his leanings on controversial topics like abortion rights, gun rights and religious freedoms.
Gorsuch, 49, used the back and forth with lawmakers to assert his independence as a judge and distance himself from the controversies swirling around the man who nominated him, President Donald Trump.
Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa, led Gorsuch into friendly exchanges that allowed him to tout his judicial independence and his pledge to follow the law, even if it involved actions by Trump.
“Nobody in this country is above the law, and that includes the president,” Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch said he would be an independent jurist — not beholden to the executive and legislative branches of government.
“I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party” Gorsuch told the panel. “There is no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge, we just have judges.”
“You want someone who is going to put politics aside,” Gorsuch told senators.
But while Gorsuch enjoys wide support among Republicans, Democrats grumbled about the GOP blockade of Judge Merrick Garland, who was nominated by President Barack Obama to sit on the high court.
The Supreme Court seat became vacant when Justice Antonin Scalia died Feb. 13, 2016 in Texas. He died of natural causes.
Even though Obama nominated Garland for the post, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., refused to hold a hearing.
The political gambit paid off. Trump was elected and selected Gorsuch from a list of 21 candidates vetted by the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said “Judge Garland would be on the bench today” if it were not for Republican actions to block the nomination.
“I think it’s shameful,” Leahy said. “I think it has damaged the reputation of this committee.”
When other senators asked Gorsuch to speak about Garland, Gorsuch remained unmovable.
“I’m not going to get involved in politics,” Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch, a Colorado native, was first appointed to the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006 by President George W. Bush. Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate on unanimous voice vote.
He now faces two more days of hearings before the Senate acts on his confirmation.
Grassley has set a vote on the nominee on April 3, with a full Senate vote following.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would be the first westerner on the high court since Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona.
Gorsuch shot down a claim brought to the Judiciary Committee by two women at the University of Colorado Law School, who said Gorsuch asked inappropriate questions about women’s family planning in a legal ethics class.
A teacher of the course, Gorsuch said an ethics textbook was used and followed, and that the question to the class was about how many women have been asked such questions by employers.
He was surprised that women still face obstacles that O’Connor faced when she graduated from law school and was forced to take work as a secretary, despite her Stanford University law degree.
Senators spent the day trying to pin down Gorsuch on his leanings on controversial issues.
Gorsuch told Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that Trump never asked how the federal judge would rule on abortion rights, or the landmark Roe v. Wade case.
“I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said.
He dodged other questions about case law, and legal precedent. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., asked about a case that allows residents in the District of Columbia to possess a weapon for self-defense, even though DC has strict laws that prohibit gun ownership.
Whatever is in the ruling, Gorsuch said, “I follow the law.”
Likewise, Gorsuch said legal precedent would suggest that a reinstatement of torture as an interrogation technique would be outside the law.
When Graham said Trump could face impeachment if he tried to reinstate torture techniques like waterboarding, Gorsuch said impeachment is under the purview of Congress.
“No man is above the law,” Gorsuch said.
Democrats on the committee sought to portray Gorsuch as a champion of big business and against “the little guy.” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said the GOP effort to get Gorsuch confirmed was bankrolled by a $10 million ad buy from a special interest group.
Contact Gary Martin at 202-662-7390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @garymartindc on Twitter.