Judge Neil Gorsuch emphasized "the importance of an independent judiciary" on Monday in opening remarks to a Senate Judiciary Committee bitterly divided over his nomination to the Supreme Court.
"Under our Constitution, it is for this body, the people's representatives, to make new laws," said Gorsuch, President Donald Trump's pick to fill the high court vacancy created 13 months ago by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. "For the executive to ensure those laws are faithfully enforced. And for neutral and independent judges to apply the law in the people's disputes."
Gorsuch, 49, who serves on the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative judge with a legal philosophy akin to Scalia's. Democrats claimed that he has found in favor of corporations over "the little guy" during that time, while Republicans credit him with an intelligent and straightforward approach of interpreting the law as it is, not as anyone would wish it to be.
Since Scalia's death, the court has split 4 to 4 on a handful of cases. Gorsuch's confirmation would generally restore the court's 5-4 conservative tilt, although Justice Anthony Kennedy, for whom Gorsuch clerked, has joined the liberals on cases involving gay rights, abortion rights and race.
"These days we sometimes hear judges cynically described as politicians in robes, seeking to enforce their own politics rather than striving to apply the law impartially. If I thought that were true I'd hang up the robe. But I just don't think that's what a life in the law is about," Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch delivered a very personal opening statement, speaking of his Western upbringing and his parents and grandparents, and choking up as he hugged his wife, Louise, of 20 years, and talked about their two daughters.
Gorsuch spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee after hours of opening statements from senators revealed deep partisan divides between Democrats and Republicans on the panel. Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics and angry Democrats condemned Republicans for refusing to act on Barack Obama's nominee last year.
Early in the hearing, Gorsuch seemed almost an afterthought at times, sitting alone at the witness table, occasionally nodding or taking notes, as the 20 members of the Judiciary Committee took turns delivering lengthy and partisan opening statements.
Questioning will begin on Tuesday and committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, the Republican from Iowa, announced the panel would vote on Gorsuch's nomination on April 3, with a vote on the Senate floor expected later that week.
Grassley in his statement alluded caustically to Democrats' complaints about judicial independence in the Trump era and said Gorsuch understood that as a matter of law, he would uphold policies with which he disagreed.
"Senators will cite some opinion of yours, and then we'll hear that you're for the "big guy," and against the "little guy," Grassley
"You will scratch your head when you hear this, because it's as if you judges write the laws instead of us senators," he said.
Gorsuch's nomination has been cheered by Republicans and praised by some left-leaning legal scholars, and Democrats headed into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings divided over how hard to fight him.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who is the ranking minority member on the committee, began by recalling that Republicans had thwarted Obama's nominee for the opening, Judge Merrick Garland, when they refused to consider him before last year's presidential election. He was denied so much as a hearing last year by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
"Merrick Garland was widely regarded as a mainstream, moderate nominee," she said.
Feinstein continued with a list of what she said were key issues the Supreme Court had the final say on, among them abortion, voting rights, election financing, gun regulations and environmental protections. She referred to a case in which Gorsuch ruled against a truck driver who claimed he'd been fired for abandoning his truck when it broke down in the freezing cold.
Gorsuch's nomination has been surprisingly low-key thus far in a Capitol distracted by Trump-driven controversies over wiretapping and Russian spying as well as attempts to pass a divisive health care bill.
Gorsuch's supporters argue that the judge is exceptionally well-qualified by background and temperament, mild-mannered and down to earth, the author of lucid and well-reasoned opinions.
As for the frozen truck case, Gorsuch wrote a reasonable opinion that merely applied the law as it was, not as he might have wished it to be, said Leonard Leo, who is on leave as executive vice president of the Federalist Society to advise Trump on judicial nominations.
"His jurisprudence is not about results," Leo said.
Democrats have struggled with how to handle the Gorsuch nomination, especially since the nominee is hardly a fire-breathing bomb-thrower. Democrats are under intense pressure from liberal voters to resist Trump at every turn.
On Monday, they took shots at Trump himself, and criticized the fact that Gorsuch appeared on a list of potential Supreme Court nominees vetted by the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation.
Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the hearing was taking place as a constitutional crisis loomed. The director of the FBI, James Comey, told the House Intelligence Committee Monday morning that the FBI was investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with a covert Russian operation to interfere with the election, the senator noted.
"The possibility of the Supreme Court needing to enforce a subpoena against the president is no longer idle speculation," Blumenthal said.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois repeated a comment by White House chief of staff Reince Priebus last month that Gorsuch "represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump."
And Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont, said, "Now they are arguing that the Senate should rubber stamp a nominee selected by extreme interest groups and nominated by a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes."
"I want to hear from you why Mr. Priebus would say that," Durbin said to Gorsuch. "Most Americans question whether we need a Supreme Court justice with the vision of Donald Trump."
Republican senators disputed the Democratic criticism.
"The nominee before us today is not President Trump," said Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. "The nominee before us today is not Leader McConnell."
"So I hope this nomination hearing focuses on the one person before us," Tillis said.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, suggested Gorsuch should disregard Democrats' attempts to draw him out on individual topics.
"You're not a politician running for election, judge, as you know," Cornyn said. "I would encourage my colleagues to carefully consider the nominee on the merits and nothing else."
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah noted that Gorsuch was confirmed unanimously by a voice vote to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2006.
And Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said, "If you believe this has been a great plan to get a Trump nominee on the court you had to believe Trump was going to win to begin with. I didn't believe it."
Gorsuch told Democratic senators during private meetings that he was disheartened by Trump's criticism of judges who ruled against the president's immigration ban, but Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and others were dissatisfied with these comments and are looking for a more forceful stance on that issue and others.
Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican, took issue with that position and said Democrats did not ask former President Bill Clinton's Supreme Court nominees about a sexual harassment lawsuit filed against him.
Cruz said Gorsuch is being asked to answer for "the actions and statements and even the tweets of the president who appointed him."
Several of the more liberal Senate Democrats have already announced plans to oppose Gorsuch and seek to block his nomination from coming to a final vote. But delay tactics by Democrats could lead McConnell to exercise procedural maneuvers of his own to eliminate the 60-vote filibuster threshold now in place for Supreme Court nominations, and with it any Democratic leverage to influence the next Supreme Court fight.
Republicans control the Senate 52-48. The filibuster rule when invoked requires 60 of the 100 votes to advance a bill or nomination, contrasted to the simple 51-vote majority that applies in most cases.