U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch told senators Tuesday he made no promises about how he would rule on cases, and he wasn’t asked to do so when President Donald Trump nominated him to the nation’s highest court.
“I have offered no promises on how I’d rule in any case to anyone,” he said at the start of a marathon day of questioning by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for a judge to do so, no matter who’s doing the asking.”
Asked by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa about judicial independence and whether he could rule against the president who appointed him, Gorsuch said he is able to “put politics aside” when ruling on cases.
“I have no difficulty ruling against or for any party, based upon what the law and facts in any particular case require,” he said.
Gorsuch called the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling a “precedent of the United States Supreme Court. It has been reaffirmed,” though he gave no indication of whether he thought the case was correctly decided.
Trump, during his presidential campaign, said that his Supreme Court nominees would be “pro-life,” and that Roe would “automatically” be overturned once he had made enough appointments.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California asked whether Roe should be considered a “super-precedent” because the high court has repeatedly reaffirmed the right to abortion. Gorsuch responded, “It has been reaffirmed many times. I can say that.”
Justices must “start with a heavy, heavy presumption in favor of precedent in our system,” Gorsuch said.
Democrats say they fear Gorsuch will reinstate a conservative Supreme Court majority that over the past decade has voted 5-4 to roll back protections for consumers, workers and racial minorities, while giving corporations new rights. He is Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee.
“If you want cases where I’ve ruled for the little guy as well as the big guy, there are plenty of them,” he told Feinstein. “What I’d like to convey to you from the bottom of my heart is that I’m a fair judge.”
Grassley said Monday the committee plans to vote on Gorsuch’s nomination April 3, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said he’s confident the judge will be confirmed later that week, before a mid-April Senate recess.
Separately from the Judiciary panel’s hearing, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said Tuesday that the chamber shouldn’t rush ahead on Gorsuch’s confirmation while Trump is under the “gray cloud” of the FBI investigation of potential ties between his presidential campaign and Russia. Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey confirmed the probe on Monday.
Asked by Feinstein about his service in the Justice Department during President George W. Bush’s administration, Gorsuch said there was a “tug of war” within the administration over a presidential statement that reserved the right to use harsher interrogation methods in special situations. Gorsuch said he was among those who wanted a “gentler” statement.
“I certainly would never have counseled anyone that they could disobey the law,” Gorsuch said. He also said he was merely “the scribe” in preparing testimony by the attorney general to Congress that said lawmakers couldn’t bar the president’s power to wiretap Americans.
Grassley opened the hearing by asking the nominee about the concept of judicial independence and whether he could rule against the president who appointed him.
“There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge. We just have judges in this country,” Gorsuch said. Later, he said, “A good judge doesn’t give a whit about politics or the political implications of his or her decisions.”
Gorsuch promised in his opening statement Monday to be a “neutral and independent” justice. Democrats said they will hold him to a higher standard than previous Supreme Court nominees, in part because of last year’s successful Republican blockade of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice for the seat that has been open since February 2016.
“In ordinary circumstances, you should enjoy the benefit of the doubt based on your qualifications, but several things have gone wrong that shift the benefit of the doubt,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, told Gorsuch Monday.
Gorsuch left behind a partisan gulf as he finished day one. Republicans hailed the appellate judge as a careful arbiter of the law, while Democrats said he goes out of his way to issue sweeping rulings in favor of powerful institutions.
Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal told reporters Monday, “Believe me, we’re going to be aggressive and tough in our questioning.”’
Tuesday’s session is expected to last into the evening, and another day of questioning for the nominee is set for Wednesday.
Gorsuch on Monday cast himself as a judge willing to rule however the law required, highlighting cases where he landed on the side of individuals.
“I have decided for Native Americans seeking to protect tribal lands, for class actions like one that ensured compensation for victims of a nuclear waste pollution problem produced by corporations in Colorado,” Gorsuch said. “I’ve ruled for disabled students, for prisoners, for the accused, for workers alleging civil rights violations and for undocumented immigrants.”
Democrats will be hard-pressed to stop Gorsuch’s nomination given Republicans’ 52-48 control of the Senate. Under current rules, Democrats need only 41 votes to filibuster the nomination, but Republicans could change those rules with a simple majority vote, an approach that has become known as the “nuclear option.”
Republicans are united behind the nominee, who has served on a federal appeals court in Denver since being appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006. Gorsuch has degrees from Columbia, Harvard and Oxford.
The Supreme Court confirmation process has grown steadily more partisan since half of the Senate’s Democrats voted to confirm John Roberts as chief justice in 2005. Roberts had promised he would resemble a baseball umpire, merely calling balls and strikes.