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Trump nominates Neil Gorsuch to Supreme Court

Michael A. Memoli
Chicago Tribune

Washington — President Donald Trump nominated federal Judge Neil M. Gorsuch on Tuesday to fill the Supreme Court seat of the late Antonin Scalia, choosing from his short list an Appeals Court judge from Denver seen as most likely to win Senate confirmation.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil M. Gorsuch speaks in the East Room of the of White House on Tuesday

Because Scalia was a stalwart conservative, Trump’s choice is not likely to change the balance of the court. But it does set the stage for a bruising partisan fight over a man who could help determine U.S. law on gun rights, immigration, police use of force and transgender rights.

Trump made his announcement with trademark showmanship, on the grand stage of the White House’s East Room before a national audience in prime time, creating some suspense — or in the more critical view of some, a reality-show atmosphere — around what is traditionally a staid, sober process.

After more than a week of rapid-fire executive actions, Trump moved to deliver on a key campaign promise: to honor the legacy of Scalia by choosing someone of similar intellectual heft and ideological zeal. Perhaps no other cause motivates the Republican coalition as does preserving the balance of the Supreme Court.

The nomination of Gorsuch, a fast-rising conservative judge with a writer’s flair, sets up a fierce fight with Democrats over a jurist who could shape America’s legal landscape for decades to come.

At 49, Gorsuch is the youngest Supreme Court nominee in a quarter-century. He’s known on the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals for clear, colloquial writing, advocacy for court review of government regulations, defense of religious freedom and skepticism toward law enforcement.

“Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills, a brilliant mind, tremendous discipline and has earned bipartisan support,” Trump declared, announcing the nomination in his first televised prime-time address from the White House.

Gorsuch’s nomination was cheered by conservatives wary of Trump’s own fluid ideology.

“Gorsuch has stellar credentials and an excellent reputation: smart, collegial, and a good writer,” said Brian Kalt, a Michigan State University law professor. "One might think of him as the classic insider, and thus not the sort of person Trump might favor, but that just goes to show how well-respected he is as a judge.”

GOP lawmakers, in particular Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., increasingly advised the president to choose a conservative least likely to further provoke a restive progressive insurgency that has sprouted in the first days of Trump’s presidency.

Some Democrats, still smarting over Trump’s unexpected victory in the presidential election, have vowed to mount a vigorous challenge to nearly any nominee to what they view as the court’s “stolen seat.” President Barack Obama nominated U.S. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland for the vacancy after Scalia’s death, but Senate Republicans refused to consider the pick, saying the seat should be filled only after the November election.

Metro Detroit attorney Mark Brewer, former chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, called Gorsuch’s selection disappointing and said the judge is “no Garland.”

“He’s a real extremist in his views,” Brewer said. “It’s unfortunate that Trump didn’t take this opportunity to try to pull the country together after a lot of divisiveness. He’s very much in the mold of Scalia: hostile to women’s rights, particularly the right to choose, hostile to consumers’ and to workers’ rights. So that’s what I think we’re looking at in the future — another Scalia at this point."

University of Michigan law professor Richard Primus Richard Primus, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Michigan Law School, first met Gorsuch 17 years ago when Gorsuch interviewed him for a job at the Washington firm of Kellogg Huber.

“In a bunch of ways, he is the closest his generation of judges has to Justice Scalia,” Primus said. “Most judges don’t actually have theories of constitutional interpretation. Scalia had one, and Gorsuch had one. It’s the same: Originalism.”

They also have similar writing styles in their sharpness and readability, although Scalia got “cranky and abrasive” as he aged, Primus said. “I hope Gorsuch will keep the tone more professional.”

With Scalia’s wife, Maureen, sitting in the audience, Trump took care to praise the late justice. Gorsuch followed, calling Scalia a “lion of the law.”

Gorsuch thanked Trump for entrusting him with “a most solemn assignment.” And he said, “Standing here in a house of history, I’m acutely aware of my own imperfections and pledge that if I am confirmed, I will do all my powers permit to be a faithful servant of the Constitution of laws of this great country.”

Trump’s choice of Gorsuch marks perhaps the most significant decision of his young presidency, one with ramifications that could last long after he leaves office. After an uneven start to his presidency, including the chaotic roll-out last week of a controversial refugee and immigration ban, Trump’s selection of Gorsuch appeared to proceed with little drama.

For some Republicans, the prospect of filling one or more Supreme Court seats over the next four years has helped ease their concerns about Trump’s experience and temperament. Three justices are in their late 70s and early 80s, and a retirement would offer Trump the opportunity to cement conservative dominance of the court for many years.

If confirmed by the Senate, Gorsuch will restore the court to the conservative tilt it held with Scalia on the bench. But he is not expected to call into question high-profile rulings on abortion, gay marriage and other issues in which the court has been divided 5-4 in recent years.

“Gorsuch, like Scalia, likes originalism: the philosophy that constitutional provisions or statutes should be read as meaning what they meant when they are written,” said Kalt. “This puts the onus for evolution in the law more on the people and Congress; to an originalist, the way to change the law is to change it, not to reinterpret it. That leads to conservative results, but not always. Just as Scalia sometimes reached results that were liberal ..., Gorsuch might as well.”

Gorsuch has won praise from conservatives for his defense of religious freedom. In two cases that involved the contraception mandate under the Obama health care law, he sided with businesses and nonprofit groups that voiced religious objections to the requirement that they provide cost-free birth control to women covered under their health plans.

The judge also has written opinions that question 30 years of Supreme Court rulings that allow federal agencies to interpret laws and regulations. Gorsuch has said that federal bureaucrats have been allowed to accumulate too much power at the expense of Congress and the courts.

Like Scalia, Gorsuch identifies himself as a judge who tries to decide cases by interpreting the Constitution and laws as they were understood when written. He also has raised questions about criminal laws in a way that resembles Scalia’s approach to criminal law.

Robert Sedler, a constitutional lawyer at Wayne State University Law School, expects that Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee will press the conservative jurist on stare decisis – the principle that courts should respect precedent and not disturb settled matters.

“The big fear of liberals is that conservative judges would overrule decisions like Roe v. Wade -- highly unlikely,” Sedler said.  “And he will try to avoid answering that question because the Trump people want the right-to-life folks to believe that, somehow, (Gorsuch) will vote to rule to overturn Roe v. Wade. He’ll say, 'I don’t believe cases should be overruled lightly, but beyond that I shouldn’t talk about specific cases.' That’s the likely scenario.”

Gorsuch, like the other eight justices on the court, has an Ivy League law degree. The Colorado native earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia University in three years, then a law degree from Harvard. He clerked for Supreme Court Justices Byron White, a fellow Coloradan, and Anthony Kennedy before earning a philosophy degree at Oxford University and working for a prominent Washington, D.C., law firm.

He served for two years in George W. Bush’s Department of Justice before the president nominated him to the Appeals Court. His mother was Anne Gorsuch, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Reagan administration.

Gorsuch is expected to face intense scrutiny from Democrats. Some liberals have demanded that Democrats block any Trump choice, underscoring the deep partisan discord surging through Washington.

“Now is not the time for business as usual,”’s Ilya Sheyman said in a statement.

Gorsuch was among the 21 possible choices for the court Trump released during the campaign. Other finalists also came from that list, including Thomas Hardiman, who serves alongside Trump’s sister on the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and William Pryor, a federal appeals court judge and Alabama’s attorney general from 1997 to 2004.

If Democrats decide to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination, his fate could rest in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Trump has encouraged McConnell to change the rules of the Senate and make it impossible to filibuster a Supreme Court nominee — a change known in the Senate as the “nuclear option.”

A conservative group already has announced plans to begin airing $2 million worth of ads in support of the nominee in Indiana, Missouri, Montana and North Dakota, four states that Trump won and in which Democrats will be defending their Senate seats in 2018.

Associated Press and Detroit News Staff Writers Mark Hicks and Melissa Nann Burke contributed to this report.