The confirmation hearings of President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Neil Gorsuch, began with Senate Judiciary Republicans praising his qualifications and legal philosophy.
“His grasp on the separation of powers — including judicial independence — enlivens his body of work,” committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said of the federal appeals court judge during his opening remarks on Monday.
Democrats, however, wanted to talk about the man they believed should have been sitting there instead: former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was denied a hearing by Senate Republicans during an election year. Garland and Gorsuch were nominated to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly in February 2016.
“I am deeply disappointed that it is under these circumstances that we begin these hearings,” said Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
She went on to say that Democrats would give Gorsuch a courtesy that Senate Republicans did not give Garland: a fair hearing.
“Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative or is he not,” Feinstein continued. She then outlined her concerns with some of Gorsuch’s past writings that hinted he opposed Roe v. Wade, calling the case a “super precedent” that legalized abortion and gave women a right to privacy.
The outset of the first day of testimony underscored that the hearings would remain sharply divided along party lines, with each senator accusing the opposing side of political posturing.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that the Senate owes a president discretion in picking his judicial nominees and pointed out that Gorsuch had received the highest rating possible from the American Bar Association, the “gold standard” in vetting judicial nominees.
Hatch blasted Democrats for wanting Gorsuch to outline how he would vote on certain cases, saying that to them, “judicial independence requires he be beholden to them and [their] political agenda” on issues like abortion.
Other Republicans argued that Gorsuch should be judged on his own merits, legal writings and decisions — not compared to the man who nominated him.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., said, “The nominee before us today is not President Trump,” nor is he Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell or Judge Garland.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., joked that he was certainly no fan of Trump during the campaign and made the case that Republicans didn’t blockade Gorsuch’s nomination to allow Trump to make a nomination because most of them didn’t believe Trump would win last November.
“If you believe this has been a great plan to get a Trump nominee on the court, then you had to believe Trump was going to win to begin with,” said Graham.
The South Carolina Republican pointed out that he had voted to confirm President Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, because they were qualified for the bench and not because he agreed with their politics. Graham urged his Democratic colleagues to give Gorsuch the same deference.
“I’m dying to hear someone over there tell me why [Gorsuch] is not qualified to be sitting here,” Graham said.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz claimed in his comments that Gorsuch’s nomination carried with it a “superlegitimacy” because Trump made the Supreme Court vacancy a major campaign issue.
Still, Democrats devoted many of their opening statements to pushing back against the so-called Republican obstructionism that they believe caused Scalia’s seat to remain vacant for more than a year.
“The Judiciary Committee once stood against a court-packing scheme that would have eroded judicial independence. That was a proud moment. Now, Republicans on this committee are guilty of their own ‘court unpacking scheme,’ ” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “The blockade of Chief Judge Merrick Garland was never grounded in principle or precedent.”
Gorsuch will give his own opening statement Monday afternoon and answer committee members’ questions on Tuesday.