(WASHINGTON) — Judge Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation hearing for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court began Monday with high praise from Republican senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who hailed Gorsuch as an “exceptional” nominee, but Democrats expressed concern over his conservative principles.
In his opening statement, Sen. Chuck Grassley, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, praised Gorsuch’s record as a federal judge.
“Fortunately for every American, we have before us today a nominee whose body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment to these principles. His grasp on the separation of powers—including judicial independence—enlivens his body of work,” Grassley said.
He continued, “The nominee before us understands that any judge worth his salt will ‘regularly issue judgments with which they disagree as a matter of policy—all because they think that’s what the law fairly demands.'”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., underscored the need for an objective Supreme Court judge in light of the Trump presidency.
“You are going to have your hands full with this president,” Durbin said. “He will keep you busy. It is incumbent on any nominee to demonstrate that he or she will serve as an independent check or balance on the presidency.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said in his remarks, “Donald Trump deserves to be congratulated for listening to a lot of people and coming up with what I think is the best choice available in terms of nominating someone who will keep the conservative philosophy alive and well in the court.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking member, addressed issues of relevance to Democrats in her prepared remarks: reproductive rights, voting rights, campaign finance, the environment and gun control.
“We’re here today under very unusual circumstances,” she said, pointing out that nearly a year ago President Obama had nominated Merrick Garland as the next Supreme Court judge. Garland was never granted a confirmation hearing after strong opposition from Republicans.
“I just want to say I’m deeply disappointed that it’s under these circumstances that we begin our hearing,” Feinstein added.
She stressed the role of the Supreme Court in upholding historic landmark decisions and protecting the legal constitutional rights of all Americans including women, people of color, minorities and the poor.
Gorsuch, 49, is a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. He was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2006 and confirmed by the Senate in a voice vote. He clerked for Judge David B. Sentelle on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and then for Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. He attended Harvard Law and has a Ph.D. from Oxford, where he was a Marshall scholar.
Like Scalia — who died at the age of 79 in February 2016 — Gorsuch is a textualist and an originalist. And his views, background and legal writings will be publicly scrutinized over the course of the week long proceedings.
“I am concerned when I hear that Judge Gorsuch is an originalist and a strict textualist,” Feinstein said.
In legal circles, Gorsuch is considered a gifted writer. His book, The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia, examines the legal and ethical issues surrounding assisted suicides. In the book, Gorsuch concludes that any form of euthanasia should not be legalized.
Law professor and legal expert Carl Tobis said he believes the questioning at Gorsuch’s hearings will be “respectful” but “rigorous.”
Tobias added that he expects “GOP members to strongly support Gorsuch and to ask questions that make him appear within the mainstream,” while Democrats “will ask about areas, issues and views where he might appear to be outside the mainstream. One key area is judicial deference to the Executive generally and this President specifically, deference to administration.”
When it comes to religious liberties and access to contraception, Gorsuch is a defender of the First Amendment’s free exercise clause, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
He has sided with Christian employers and religious organizations in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases, in which the plaintiffs argued for an exemption from the contraception mandate in President Obama’s signature health care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, citing their religious beliefs.
In the Hobby Lobby case, Gorsuch wrote, “The ACA’s mandate requires them to violate their religious faith by forcing them to lend an impermissible degree of assistance to conduct their religion teaches to be gravely wrong.”
When it comes to criminal procedure, he dissented in the United States v. Carlos case, arguing that police officers violated the Fourth Amendment when they entered a home that had a “no trespassing” sign posted.
In a press conference last week, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., cautioned that Gorsuch has important questions to answer about some of his opinions, most notably “his decisions he wrote that favored the powerful over the powerless.”
Schumer last week suggested that he would not support the confirmation of Gorsuch and urged his Senate Democratic colleagues to do the same.
Gorsuch supporter Leonard Leo of The Federalist Society told ABC News he is confident that “Gorsuch will be confirmed.”
The hearings are expected to conclude by the end of the week.
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