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Neil Gorsuch Was Conservative Voice at Liberal Columbia U

In his college writings, Gorsuch took on many of the most controversial issues of the day

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    President Donald Trump nominated Judge Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge in Denver, to succeed Antonin Scalia on the United States Supreme Court. NBC’s Tracie Potts reports. (Published Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017)

    As a conservative student at Columbia University in the mid-1980s, future Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was a political odd man out, and he was determined to speak up.

    "It is not fashionable at Columbia to be anything other than a pro-Sandinista, anti-Reagan" protester, the then-sophomore wrote in a campus newspaper. "Only in an atmosphere where all voices are heard, where all moral standards are openly and honestly discussed and debated, can the truth emerge."

    Gorsuch often sounded those themes - a call for intellectual diversity and open debate, coupled with a dismissiveness of protesters - as he became one of the right's most outspoken, though nuanced, voices on the Manhattan campus. He co-founded a conservative newspaper, wrote for the main campus daily and ran for the university senate.

    Gorsuch, now a Denver-based federal appellate judge, also displayed a sense of humor back then. That's not unlike the late Antonin Scalia, the justice he could replace as President Donald Trump's candidate for the high court.

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    "The illegal we do immediately, the unconstitutional takes a little longer," reads the Henry Kissinger joke that appears beside Gorsuch's 1988 yearbook photo.

    In his college writings, Gorsuch took on many of the most controversial issues of the day. He defended then-President Ronald Reagan early in the Iran-Contra scandal - secret dealings to sell U.S. arms to Iran and funnel proceeds to Contra rebels fighting Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government. Yet Gorsuch also faulted Reagan's foreign policy as indecisive.

    In an era of anti-apartheid student activism that sought to pressure universities to sell investments in South Africa-related businesses, Gorsuch cautioned that divestment could harm the university's endowment and scholarships, while calling the cause "unquestionably an honorable one."

    Asked in a student candidate questionnaire whether military recruiters should be barred from campus at a time when gays were prohibited from serving in uniform, he pivoted to a defense of free speech. At a time of rampant national concern and misunderstanding about the spread of AIDS, he said requiring AIDS patients at Columbia to report their illness to the university's health service would violate their privacy.

    As for whether Columbia's core curriculum should include more female and minority authors, an issue that was dawning as a major culture clash between multiculturalists and traditionalists on American campuses, Gorsuch wrote simply: "If possible, yes."

    To former colleagues on the start-up Federalist Paper, co-founder Gorsuch was a thoughtful, unseasonably mature student dedicated to fostering debate on campus.

    "He was not an ideologue," says M. Adel Aslani-Far, a former writer and editor for the paper. "At his core was that things should be thought through and presented and argued, not in a confrontational sense, but in the lawyer-judge sense."

    Even during bleary-eyed, wee-hours sessions of squeezing an issue into print, Gorsuch made sure any cuts to "pro" and "con" commentaries didn't chop either argument unequally, said Aslani-Far, now a corporate lawyer. Stephen Later, a former Federalist Paper editor who's now a corporate attorney in Pinehurst, North Carolina, remembers Gorsuch as "brilliant, reflective and fundamentally decent."

    Even Gorsuch's political adversaries from Columbia recall him as civil and genteel. But they also recall that he once suggested he might sue fellow students over what he said was an inaccurate claim that his newspaper got backing from a conservative foundation.

    And they can't forget how he sneered at campus activism, ridiculing Columbia's frequent student demonstrations as "rites of spring." Protests over issues that included student elections, punishment for blockading buildings and a fraternity system under scrutiny over its treatment of women and black students "inspire no one and offer no fresh ideas or important notions," Gorsuch, a fraternity member, wrote shortly before his ahead-of-schedule 1988 graduation as a political science major.

    Inspire no one? "Racial justice and freedom of speech and sexual assault and misogynistic behavior at frats, those were burning issues, and they remain burning issues to this day," says Andrea Miller, a former opinion-page editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator, who published Gorsuch's columns and was entangled in the controversy over the Federalist Paper's funding. She's now president of the National Institute of Reproductive Health.

    Gorsuch's court staff in Colorado referred questions about his college years to the White House, which didn't immediately respond.

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    The son of a Reagan administration official, Gorsuch arrived in 1985 at a campus charged with liberal activism. The previous spring, students pushing for divestment had barricaded a campus building for three weeks.

    Late in his freshman year, he ran for the university senate. He was disqualified for violating campaign-poster placement rules; he said the breach was unintentional.

    But Gorsuch soon cemented his place in campus politics and commentary with the Federalist Paper, which he founded with three other students. Gorsuch's federalist views have stayed with him during a decade on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. In many of his decisions, Gorsuch has favored extending greater power to states, counties, towns and American Indian tribes and has criticized what he views as government overreach.

    As a Federalist Paper editor, he wrote relatively few articles. It's unclear what role he played in unsigned editorials, including one that called on "everyone at this university to take a deep breath, count to 10 and relax" until more facts came to light about a melee involving black students and white fraternity brothers, some of them Gorsuch's. The university ultimately found "racial harassment" occurred and disciplined an unnamed white student for verbal abuse. But police said they were unable to make arrests because the black students had refused to be interviewed.

    Overall, Gorsuch was "someone who encouraged the floating of ideas for discussion," willing to play devil's advocate to spur conversation, said one of the writers and editors for the Federalist Paper, Eric Prager, now a corporate attorney.

    He describes the Fed as centrist. But to former campus activist-turned-civil rights lawyer Jordan Kushner of Minneapolis, Gorsuch was anything but.

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    "He's good at sounding reasonable, but ... he took really right-wing positions" on protesters and the Iran-Contra affair, says Kushner, who tangled with Gorsuch on various issues. Congressional committees investigating Iran-Contra eventually found "the rule of law was subverted," and Reagan bore ultimate responsibility for aides' wrongdoing.

    By 1989, a newly graduated Gorsuch reflected on the Federalist Paper in another writer's Spectator article about conservatives on campus.

    "I'm not sure that conservatism and Columbia can be easily connected," Gorsuch said. "However, the debate has been opened up considerably, and this is good."