President Trump has selected federal appeals court Judge Neil Gorsuch to fill a Supreme Court seat that has sat vacant for nearly a year, setting up a blockbuster confirmation hearing that could put the new White House’s domestic political agenda on trial in the U.S. Senate.
The selection fulfills an early campaign promise by Trump to nominate a solidly conservative judge with a record of strictly interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Gorsuch, 49, sailed through an earlier confirmation process for a spot on the federal appeals court in Denver.
Only weeks after his nomination in 2006, the Senate confirmed him by voice vote. The American Bar Association rated him as “unanimously well qualified” at the time.
Gorsuch has a sterling legal pedigree. He clerked for two Supreme Court justices, Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. He also served as a clerk on the second most important appeals court in the country, in Washington D.C., for conservative Judge David Sentelle.
Like Justice Antonin Scalia, whom he is in line to replace, Gorsuch has cultivated a reputation as a memorable and clear author of legal opinions. He also considers himself to be an originalist. Lawyers who practice before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, where Gorsuch currently works, said he is a popular and approachable judge.
SCOTUSblog, the leading Supreme Court blog, described some of Gorsuch’s parallels to Scalia as “eerie.”
“He is an ardent textualist (like Scalia); he believes criminal laws should be clear and interpreted in favor of defendants even if that hurts government prosecutions (like Scalia); he is skeptical of efforts to purge religious expression from public spaces (like Scalia); he is highly dubious of legislative history (like Scalia); and he is less than enamored of the dormant commerce clause (like Scalia),” the blog wrote.
Among other rulings that came to national attention, Gorsuch sided in favor of “religious freedom” claims made by the Little Sisters of the Poor and the owners of the craft company Hobby Lobby, who challenged language in the Affordable Care Act that required them to pay for contraceptive coverage for employees. The Supreme Court backed those Hobby Lobby challengers, in a divided vote, in 2014.
In a lecture to the conservative Federalist Society in Washington more than three years ago, Gorsuch elicited laughter from the audience as he quoted from the 1853 Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, referenced the work of the late novelist David Foster Wallace, and discussed irony and the law.
“Like any human enterprise, the law’s crooked timber occasionally produces the opposite of the intended effect,” he said. “We turn to the law earnestly to promote a worthy idea and wind up with a host of unwelcome side effects that do more harm than good. … We depend upon the rule of law to guarantee freedom, but we have to give up freedom to live under the law’s rules.”
Off the bench, Gorsuch in 2006 published a book called The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, criticizing the practice and defending the “intrinsic value” of human life. He also contributed to The Law of Judicial Precedent last year.