‘Everything conservatives hoped for and liberals feared’: Neil Gorsuch makes his mark at the Supreme Court

Some justices ascend to the Supreme Court quietly, deferring to their elders and biding time before venturing out too far to offer their own views of the law.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, on the other hand, appears to have been shot from a cannon.

At his inaugural oral argument in April 2017, President Trump’s first choice for the Supreme Court asked 22 questions. In the term just completed, Gorsuch wrote more dissents than any other justice and typed out a whopping 337 pages of opinions. Again, more than anyone else.

Along the way, he has established himself as one of the court’s most conservative justices and a reliable vote for Trump initiatives that have reached the Supreme Court — the travel ban on those from mostly-Muslim countries, adding a citizenship question to the census form and allowing a ban on transgender service in the military to go into effect. He has shown a willingness to overturn precedent and an impatience with more reticent colleagues.

More than anything, he has displayed a supreme confidence that his originalist approach to the law is the most disciplined and principled way to go about his job as a justice.


Gorsuch’s book “A Republic, If You Can Keep It,” goes on sale Tuesday. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

“I’m all in, and I wanted to explain that,” Gorsuch said in a recent interview in his chambers. He was referring to “A Republic, If You Can Keep It,” a book he has written that goes on sale Tuesday. The title is from Benjamin Franklin’s reported comment when asked what kind of government the Founding Fathers would propose.

It is a collection of essays, speeches, past opinions and ruminations on civics, civility and the art of judging.

“I decided I wanted to say something about the Constitution, the separation of powers and the judge’s role in it,” Gorsuch said in the interview. At his confirmation in 2017, he said, “I was surprised by just some basic misunderstandings about the separation of powers.”

(In the interview, which happened to fall on his 52nd birthday, Gorsuch was unwilling to discuss the way the Senate goes about evaluating Supreme Court nominees. “You’re not going to make me relive the confirmation process are you?” he said in response to a question. “On my birthday?”)

Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch took the oath of office on April 10, 2017, at the White House. (Reuters)

Those who follow the court, on the left and the right, do not need a book to evaluate how Gorsuch has filled his role as the replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016.

He’s everything conservatives hoped for and liberals feared,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, the liberal dean of the law school at the University of California at Berkeley. He recently wrote a detailed evaluation of Gorsuch’s jurisprudence for ABA Journal.

Gregory Garre, who was solicitor general under President George W. Bush, said that Gorsuch is much like a concentrated version of Scalia, right down to his “maverick” tendencies to join the court’s liberals on some criminal justice issues.

“In a 2016 tribute to Justice Scalia, then-Judge Gorsuch described Justice Scalia as ‘docile in private life but a ferocious fighter when at work,’ ” Garre said. “Much the same could be said about Justice Gorsuch.”

One difference, according to Garre: “Arguably, he’s been more open to rethinking long-standing constitutional doctrine. . . . In this regard, he’s closer to Justice [Clarence] Thomas, who, even when Justice Scalia was on the court, often found himself writing alone on such matters.”

Respecting the court’s precedents — “stare decisis,” it is called — is a pledge that senators of both parties try to extract from Supreme Court nominees. Republicans want to preserve rulings respecting the Second Amendment; Democrats worry about eroding the right to abortion or the protection of same-sex marriage.

According to Adam Feldman, who analyzes the court for his website Empirical SCOTUS, Gorsuch has voted to overturn or suggested revisiting 11 of the court’s precedents in his two terms on the court.

Gorsuch, in the interview, denied that made him much different from any other justice.

“I think we’d all agree that precedent is very important,” Gorsuch said. “But it isn’t inexorable.”

As he writes in the book, Gorsuch said a justice must look at how a decision comports with the “original meaning” of the Constitution, how well reasoned the decision was at the time, how long it has been relied upon, how many other justices have questioned it.

“Goodness gracious, this court is as modest and as conservative as any in our history” about overturning precedent, Gorsuch said.

But if a litigant requests the court consider overturning a precedent, “I have to listen,” he said. “And once in a while I’m going to be persuaded. It’s not going to be that often. But it’s going to happen once in a while.”

Gorsuch voted with fellow conservatives to overturn a 40-year-old precedent involving the way public employee unions can collect collective-bargaining fees. And he advocated, along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, uprooting a precedent that allows local and federal prosecution for the same offense.

In a case last term that allowed a 40-foot cross to stand on public land as a memorial to World War I veterans, Gorsuch and Thomas went further than the majority to advocate finally ditching the test the court has set for deciding when a public display constitutes government endorsement of religion. Along with it, he said, should go the ability of “offended observers” to challenge such displays in court.

There are few references to current controversies in the book, and in the interview Gorsuch was adamant about not commenting on cases that could come before the court or opining about the man who nominated him.

For instance, in the book and in the interview, Gorsuch lavishly praised federal judges who “believe the Constitution is the greatest charter of human liberty that history’s ever known. And they believe in this country, they believe it’s more important than their own financial feathering of their nests.”

But asked about Trump’s frequent charge of bias against judges who have ruled against him or his policies, Gorsuch balked. “They can do their thing in the political arena. I’m a judge. And I’m going to stick to my lane,” the justice said. “You asked about what I think of judges in this country. I already talked about that, all right? Insert that answer here.”

Far from the candid coming-of-age memoirs of Thomas and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Gorsuch’s book has chapters such as “Our Constitution and Its Separated Powers” and “The Judge’s Tools.” It is in the latter that he defends his view of originalism — “the Constitution should be read in our time the same way it was read when adopted” — and the textualist view of statutory interpretation.

Such a practice eschews trying to divine the legislature’s intent in passing a law and “tasks judges with discerning (only) what an ordinary English speaker familiar with the law’s usages would have understood the statutory text to mean at the time of its enactment.”

Such pronouncements fit in a book trying to explain how a judge works. But when Gorsuch first joined the court, they seemed to grate on his more experienced colleagues when he extolled them at oral argument. More than one issued a rebuke.

But the court has a way of coming together. “This is a group of people who respect, admire, cherish one another, I think, on a daily basis,” Gorsuch said in the interview. “It’s a very special little place.”

Sotomayor, Gorsuch’s liberal seatmate when the court hears oral arguments, has described him as a “lovely” person with whom she has decided to agreeably disagree. Ginsburg, one of those who seemed put off early on by the new justice, now tells audiences that she assigned two majority opinions to Gorsuch in the past term when he sided with the court’s liberals.

Ginsburg, famous for her octogenarian workouts, also says Gorsuch is probably the court’s fittest justice: He often makes an hour-and-a-quarter commute to work — each way — on his bicycle.

Despite their lifetime appointments, justices share a sense of fleeting fame. That is probably how it should be, Gorsuch said. But his worry is that Americans do not understand the structure of government and its institutions.

“Only about a third of Americans can identify the three branches,” Gorsuch said. “Another third can only name one branch of government. Ten percent thinks Judy Sheindlin serves on the United States Supreme Court. Judge Judy!”

He added, “I’ve got great respect for her, but she is not one of my colleagues.”

Making Sense of the New American Right

Keeping track of the Jacksonians, Reformicons, Paleos, and Post-liberals.

I like to start my classes on conservative intellectual history by distinguishing between three groups. There is the Republican party, with its millions of adherents and spectrum of opinion from very conservative, somewhat conservative, moderate, and yes, liberal. There is the conservative movement, the constellation of single-issue nonprofits that sprung up in the 1970s

  • gun rights,
  • pro-life,
  • taxpayer,
  • right to work

— and continue to influence elected officials. Finally, there is the conservative intellectual movement: writers, scholars, and wonks whose journalistic and political work deals mainly with ideas and, if we’re lucky, their translation into public policy.

How the US Supreme Court Lost Its Legitimacy

Though Democratic presidential candidates have won the popular vote in every single election since 1992, except one, Republicans have managed to secure a far-right majority on the US Supreme Court. As a result, the Court’s claim to be a neutral, non-partisan arbiter for pressing constitutional questions is quickly losing credibility.

.. the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to a seat on the Supreme Court marks the culmination of a decades-long campaign by the right-wing Federalist Society to reshape the judiciary. For those devout conservatives and their monied backers, faced with the prospect of massive demographic and generational shifts in the country’s body politic, the strategy has long been to find a way to limit severely access to authentic democratic governance in the United States for generations to come. They now seem on the verge of achieving their goal.

.. since 1988, Republican presidential candidates have won the popular vote in presidential elections – the only consistent measure of national voter intent – just once, when George W. Bush was reelected in 2004 after a period of national unification following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In every other presidential election (1992, 1996, 2000, 2008, 2012, and 2016), the Democratic candidate won more votes than the Republican candidate.

.. considerable evidence has accumulated that Thomas acceded to that seat by committing perjury during his Senate confirmation hearings.

.. Nine years later, Thomas would go on to join the 5-4 majority in Bush v. Gore, in which the Court ruled that Florida’s 2000 election recount must stop. In doing so, he helped hand the presidency to the son of the man who had appointed him, and denied it to Al Gore, who had won the national popular ballot by more than 500,000 votes.

.. So obtuse was the majority’s written opinion in that case that the ruling actually came with a remarkable disclaimer that it should never be cited as precedent in the future.

.. In 2005, he appointed the current chief justice, John Roberts, to replace William Rehnquist; and in 2006 he appointed Samuel Alito to replace Sandra Day O’Connor.

.. Obama bent over backwards to assuage them, nominating Merrick Garland, the moderate Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

.. Mitch McConnell, succeeded in stymieing the president’s constitutional authority to appoint Supreme Court justices with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.

It bears mentioning that, at this time, the 54 Republicans in the Senate had collectively received 20 million fewer votes than their 46 Democratic colleagues. The Republicans owed their majority strictly to the Senate’s anti-democratic composition, whereby each state is represented by two senators

.. This scheme was one of many concessions made to slave states during the drafting of the Constitution, and with the rise of urbanization, it has come to have an increasingly distortionary effect on American politics. For example, Wyoming’s two senators represent 563,767 people (according to the 2010 census), whereas California’s senators represent 37,254,518.

.. Moreover, Clinton achieved her high popular-vote margin despite widespread voter-disenfranchisement campaigns aimed at Democratic-leaning voters in states controlled by Republicans.

.. In Florida, where elections are regularly notoriously close, more than 1.5 million citizens (over 10% of the state’s total number of adults, and one in five African-Americans) are denied the vote owing to nonviolent criminal convictions, even after they have served their time in prison.

.. Despite having no democratic mandate to speak of, Trump and the Senate Republicans wasted no time in confirming Neil Gorsuch to Garland’s rightful seat on theCourt.

.. Kavanaugh was selected by a president who has been implicated in a felony allegedly committed in pursuit of the office he now holds. That alone calls into question Trump’s legitimacy. But he is also the subject of an unprecedented investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with a hostile foreign power – an investigation that has already resulted in more than 20 guilty pleas or felony convictions.

.. Kavanaugh, a member of the legal team that persuaded the Supreme Court to hand Bush the presidency in 2000 (thereby hastening the whole grim cavalcade of misbegotten) was most likely selected for his conspicuous support of executive authority in the past. His interpretation of the president’s powers seems to brook no limits, and would likely open the door for Trump to ignore a grand-jury subpoena and even shut down the investigation of his campaign.

.. With his party still enjoying a two-vote (minority-elected) majority in the Senate, McConnell has shown no compunction about ramming Kavanaugh’s dubious nomination through that body. That leaves no alternative but to consider the dire implications of a Supreme Court dominated by the Misbegotten Majority: Thomas, Roberts, Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh. What will this judicial coup mean for reproductive, criminal, labor, and civil rights?

.. More to the point, one of the main threats posed by the new Court is what it will do to voting rights and the laws governing elections – that is, the democratic process itself. Decisions that bear on the outcomes of elections could very well upend the functioning of the other two branches of government, thereby blocking all other possible avenues of redress available within theConstitution’s wider system of checks and balances.

.. Of course, this has been the Republicans’ idea all along. For decades, the Federalist Society, which has overseen all of Trump’s judicial nominations, has understood that cultural and demographic trends are poised to strip the power of its wealthy, predominantly white male sponsors. That cohort is in the process of dying out, and the majority of future voters – and, indeed, current voters, judging by recent popular-vote counts – will be younger, more diverse, more tolerant, and considerably further to the left on economic matters.

To forestall this outcome of democracy, conservatives’ first instinct was to limit the franchise itself. The broad demographic and generational changes underway could be nullified by denying key constituencies the right to vote. And when that wasn’t possible, the next best option was to tamper with electoral outcomes by means of untraceable “dark money” and gerrymandering. The result is that Austin, Texas, one of the most liberal cities in America, is represented in the House of Representatives by four Republicans and just one Democrat; and North Carolina, a state that is evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters, is represented by ten Republicans and just three Democrats.

.. He was also on board for the decimation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which for a half-century had prevented blatant racial discrimination in districts with documented histories of disenfranchising African-Americans and members of other minority groups. And he routinely passed the buck on gerrymandering cases.

.. Citing so-called states’ rights, the Court might start by overturning a recent 3-0 federal circuit court decision ordering North Carolina to redraw its egregiously gerrymandered congressional districts. With that precedent in place, other states will be able to step up their own voter-suppression efforts across the board.

.. For example, some states might decide to deny college students the right to cast absentee ballots, or to vote in jurisdictions where they have not established a permanent residency (or both). Others may think to impose property requirements for voter eligibility, or to “save costs” by shutting down polling stations in, say, Latino neighborhoods.

Still others might require non-drivers to show another form of state-issued identification, which can be acquired only at some remotely located administrative office.

.. retaking the House in 2018 won’t do the Democrats much good as far as the Court is concerned.  All of the constitutional checks on the judiciary rest with the Senate.

..  when it comes to voting rights, gerrymandering, and other election-related cases, he has been one of the justices leading the charge from the right.

.. Whereas Democratic presidents have based their appointments to the Court on merit, Republicans have made a point of selecting younger jurists who will remain on the bench for decades.

.. All of this will be justified on the grounds of “originalism” – the FederalistSociety/Scalia doctrine of sticking to the strict letter of the Constitution as intended (according to them) by its authors at the time of its promulgation. Never mind that in 1787, only propertied men took part in the Constitutional Convention, and that a sizeable plurality were slaveholders zealously guarding their right to treat people like chattel.

..  if individual states try to enact progressive policies on their own, they should be prepared for the Misbegotten Majority suddenly to suspend its much-vaunted devotion to “states’ rights” and strike those down, too. After all, that is the job their sponsors put them there todo. They will not soon forget that they are part of a decades-long project of minority rule.

.. After 2020, more avenues for the proper functioning of checks and balances could open up, especially if the Democrats win the White House and the Senate. Frustrated by their democratically legitimate legislation being scuttled by a misbegotten Court, they could see fit to draft articles of impeachment against Thomas.

.. The journalists Jane Mayer and Jill Abramson have marshaled clear evidence that Thomas lied under oath throughout his confirmation hearing on matters pertaining to his past behavior toward female co-workers and subordinates. And Kavanaugh himself may be facing similar jeopardy with regard to possible perjury in his own confirmation processes.

.. Alternatively, Democrats could pick up where former President Franklin D. Roosevelt left off, by trying to expand the size of the Court, which can be achieved through legislation. But, given the squishiness of swing-state Democrats, a court-packing gambit could fail, as it did with Roosevelt; or, even worse, it could backfire by setting a dangerous precedent for Republicans to follow when they return to power.

..  America would hardly be the first democracy in history to succumb to plutocratic autocracy verging on fascism.