Gorsuch preserves High Court’s conservative bent
Washington – Neil Gorsuch became the Supreme Court’s newest member a year ago this Tuesday. President Donald Trump’s pick for the high court, its 113th justice, has now heard more than 60 cases on issues including gerrymandering, fees paid to unions and the privacy of certain cellphone records.
It’s generally unwise to predict anything about a justice so early into his or her tenure, with few opinions written and votes in a small number of cases. But so far Gorsuch has been what Republicans believed and hoped he would be — a reliably conservative vote.
Beyond that, the public has gotten a glimpse of what Gorsuch may be like as a justice, from chances to see him spar with lawyers in court arguments, speak to groups and even tackle his first issue on the cafeteria committee.
A look at what observers have seen from Gorsuch inside and outside the court in the past year:
Frequent readers of Gorsuch’s writing as a justice say his style is designed to attract attention and reach an audience beyond law professors and experts. So far, he’s written three opinions, two separate opinions where he agreed with the majority’s result and several dissents.
Earlier this year Gorsuch began a dissent by citing English writer G.K. Chesterton, an opening that drew mixed reviews. He started an opinion involving water rights with a humorous quote attributed to actor Will Rogers, who is said to have called the Rio Grande “the only river I saw that needed irrigation.”
In some cases, Gorsuch has been criticized for seemingly talking down to readers or to his colleagues on the opposite side of an issue, but he’s also won praise for being clear and engaging. Opinion writing isn’t new for Gorsuch, who spent a decade as a federal appeals court judge before joining the Supreme Court. Now, however, it comes with higher stakes and a broader audience.
Court observers caution against reading too much into Gorsuch’s first Supreme Court writings. “One year is not that much of a sample size on a justice,” said Dan Epps, who co-hosts the First Mondays podcast about the court.
The lightning rod
Gorsuch has been the target of criticism from the left over the past year, perhaps in part because of the political atmosphere in which he was confirmed. After Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016, Senate Republicans refused to hold a hearing on President Barack Obama’s choice to replace the conservative jurist and left Scalia’s seat open for more than a year until voters chose a new president.
Some critics have noted that Gorsuch’s few public appearances since becoming a justice have included speaking at events linked to people who helped him get his new job. His decision to speak at an event at Trump’s Washington hotel in September drew particular ire.
While liberals had hoped that Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, would fill Scalia’s seat, Gorsuch’s selection preserved the court’s conservative bent. Since joining the court, Gorsuch has joined Justice Clarence Thomas as one of conservatives’ favorite justices, fully agreeing with Thomas in 14 of the 17 cases in which the court has not been unanimous, according to statistics compiled in part by the website SCOTUSblog. That’s in comparison to just eight of those cases where Gorsuch has fully agreed with more moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The oral argument questioner
Scalia was from the outset of his time as a justice an aggressive questioner during arguments. Gorsuch is less dominant. So far this term he has asked an average of 16 questions per argument, the third highest average among the nine justices, according to SCOTUSblog. He’s rarely been the first justice with a question. And during arguments in February in a high-profile labor union case in which he holds the decisive vote, he said nothing at all.
Gorsuch has made the courtroom audience laugh 11 times this term. That puts him in fifth place for laugh-getting by a justice, according to Boston University law professor Jay Wexler. One such moment came during arguments in a case about a baker who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. Gorsuch noted he’s never had “a wedding cake that I would say tastes great.”
The junior justice
Gorsuch has some special roles as the court’s newest member. Those include taking notes and speaking last at the justices’ private conferences as well as opening the door when anyone knocks. He also serves on the court’s cafeteria committee.
Gorsuch has said his first cafeteria committee act was to help address a problem with the meatball subs. “The marinara sauce had been somehow replaced by shrimp cocktail sauce,” he said. “We got that fixed.”
Gorsuch gave up ready access to skiing, a favorite activity, when he left his home in Colorado for the nation’s capital. His outdoor activities these days include taking regular, early morning bike rides, he has said, and he has been spotted leaving the court on two wheels. Inside his office he has some wildlife: the head of an elk, a welcome gift of sorts.
Asked during an appearance at Harvard what he’d be doing if he weren’t a lawyer, he said the question stopped him before the answer became obvious.
“I envy fly fishing guides and ski instructors,” he said. “And better yet somebody who does one in the summer and the other in the winter.”
Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman contributed to this report.
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