Gorsuch wards off Democrats' attacks on last day

Erica Werner and Mark Sherman
Associated Press

Washington — On a glide path toward confirmation, Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch parried fresh attacks from Democrats Wednesday on abortion and special education, insisting that “when you put on the robe, you open your mind” as he faced a final day before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Frustrated Democrats, unable to get much out of the Denver-based appeals court judge over 11 hours of questioning a day earlier, suggested they might not vote to confirm him later this month. Regardless, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made clear this week that he will see that Gorsuch is confirmed on way or another in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, gave voice to widespread Democratic complaints Wednesday about Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s pick for the high court.

Gorsuch has said repeatedly that he would adhere to the rule of law and respect the independence of the judiciary, but he has refused to address specifics on any number of issues, from abortion and guns, to allowing cameras in the courtroom, to the treatment of the federal judge nominated last year to the Supreme Court vacancy but denied a hearing by Republicans.

“What worries me is you have been very much able to avoid any specificity like no one I have ever seen before,” Feinstein told Gorsuch. “And maybe that’s a virtue, I don’t know. But for us on this side, knowing where you stand on major questions of the day is really important to a vote ‘aye,’ and so that’s why we pressed and pressed.”

Gorsuch repeated his general commitments to adhering faithfully to precedent, the law and independence.

“I care about the law, I care deeply about the law and an independent judiciary and following the rules of the law,” he told Feinstein. “And that’s the commitment I can make to you, I can’t promise you more and I can’t guarantee you any less.”

Feinstein pressed Gorsuch on the issue of abortion and the possibility the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing it could be overturned: “This is real life, and young women take everything for granted today and all of that could be struck out with one decision.”

Gorsuch replied, “All I can promise you is that I will exercise the care and consideration, due precedent, that a good judge is supposed to.”

The hearing took place against the backdrop of the turmoil of Trump’s young presidency. Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are demanding a pause in Gorsuch’s nomination pending the FBI investigation of alleged ties between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia. Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa dismissed that as “ridiculous,” and McConnell told The Associated Press: “Gorsuch will be confirmed. I just can’t tell you exactly how that will happen yet.”

For Republicans, Gorsuch’s nomination is a bright spot that could go far to compensate for Trump’s various other missteps and misstatements.

“I think President Trump, with all of his problems and all of his mistakes, chose wisely when it came to this man,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.., declared at Wednesday’s hearing.

Under questioning from Graham, Gorsuch repeated statements he’d made publicly for the first time Tuesday, that he was “disheartened” and “demoralized” by Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, including the federal judges who blocked the president’s refugee travel ban.

And when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., pressed him on whether the president could ignore a court order, Gorsuch replied: “You better believe I expect judicial decrees to be obeyed.”

Gorsuch, 49, has spent more than a decade on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, and would fill the 13-month vacancy on the high court created by the death of Antonin Scalia last year.

The confirmation hearing will wrap up with a panel of outside witnesses talking about Gorsuch, before a committee vote expected April 3 and a Senate floor vote later that same week. Republicans control the Senate 52-48 so would require eight Democrats to move Gorsuch past procedural hurdles, and thus far no Democrat has said they will support the judge. But McConnell could also change Senate rules to confirm Gorsuch with a simple minority, and appears prepared to take that step.

As Wednesday’s hearing began, Grassley raised an opinion Gorsuch had written related to special education programs at public schools.

Shortly after that exchange, in an odd coincidence, the Supreme Court handed down an opinion in a separate but related case that unanimously overturned Gorsuch’s reasoning. The high court said that public schools that offer special education programs must meet higher standards in educating learning-disabled students.

Questioned by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., Gorsuch said he’d only just been given the Supreme Court ruling on the way to the bathroom, and he defended his earlier opinion, saying he was following earlier Supreme Court and 10th circuit cases.

But Durbin suggested Gorsuch had gone further than what was required and lowered the bar for public schools to comply with the federal law on special education.

“Why in your early decision did you want to lower the bar so low?” Durbin asked

“I was wrong senator, I was wrong because I was bound by circuit court precedent,” Gorsuch said. “And I’m sorry.”