Senators draw battle lines as Supreme Court hearing starts

  • Judge Neil Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 
  • His nomination has been cheered by Republicans and praised by some left-leaning legal scholars 
  • Democrats head into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Monday divided over how hard to fight him 

By David Martosko, Us Political Editor For Dailymail.com and Associated Press

Published: 03:10 EDT, 20 March 2017 | Updated: 12:21 EDT, 20 March 2017

Judge Neil Gorsuch sat spectator-silent Monday morning as Senators drew battle lines in preparation of the Supreme Court nominee's impending grilling.

The first day of Senate Judiciary Committee hearings got underway with Republicans and Democrats tussling over whether the high court should use its power to expand the U.S. Constitution, or decide life-shaping cases based on the words America's founding fathers used 228 years ago.

Judges aren't free to re-write statutes to get results they believe are more just,' Republican committee chairman Chuck Grassley declared as the closely watched event got underway. 'Judges aren’t free to re-order regulations to make them more fair. And no, judges aren’t free to "update" the Constitution. That’s not their job.'

Ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein delivered a blistering critique of judges who stick to the 'original meaning of the constitution.'

'This is personal,' she said, 'but I find this originalist judicial philosophy to be really troubling. ... I firmly believe that the U.S. Constitution is a living document, intended to evolve.'

Judge Neil Gorsuch (center) arrived for the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (left) and Chairman Charles Grassley (right) – the two senators who exchanged passive-aggressive fire Monday Judge Neil Gorsuch (center) arrived for the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (left) and Chairman Charles Grassley (right) – the two senators who exchanged passive-aggressive fire Monday

Judge Neil Gorsuch (center) arrived for the first day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing with Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein (left) and Chairman Charles Grassley (right) – the two senators who exchanged passive-aggressive fire Monday

'Judges aren’t free to "update" the Constitution,' said Grassley (right); 'I firmly believe that the U.S. Constitution is a living document,' countered Feinstein (left)

Gorsuch faces a lengthy multi-day hearing process and then weeks of waiting for a final vote as Democrats and Republicans argue over whether his judicial philosophy is fit for a lifetime appointment to the high court Gorsuch faces a lengthy multi-day hearing process and then weeks of waiting for a final vote as Democrats and Republicans argue over whether his judicial philosophy is fit for a lifetime appointment to the high court

Gorsuch faces a lengthy multi-day hearing process and then weeks of waiting for a final vote as Democrats and Republicans argue over whether his judicial philosophy is fit for a lifetime appointment to the high court

Feinstein cited slavery and witch-burnings as she claimed interpreting the Constitution as its framers knew it meant that 'we would still have segregated schools and bans on interracial marriage,' and the rights of women and LGBT Americans would be threatened. 

Conservatives generally believe that the Constitution should only be changed through the amendment process described in Article V. That involves two-thirds supermajority votes in both houses of Congress, and votes to ratify amendments in three-quarters of U.S. states.

Amendments were ratified in 1865 to ban slavery, in 1869 to guarantee voting rights for American men of all races, and in 1919 to extend the franchise to all women. 

The largely civil and slow-moving hearings come 13 months after Justice Antonin Scalia's death created a vacancy on the Supreme Court. 

Former president Barack Obama nominated a replacement, but the Republican-led Senate declined to hold hearings in an election year, insisting that the newly elected president – whoever it turned out to be – should nominate a new justice.  

Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

His nomination has been cheered by Republicans and praised by some left-leaning legal scholars, and Democrats head into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on Monday divided over how hard to fight him.

The nomination and confirmation process 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, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals  Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 

Gorsuch, 49, is a respected, highly credentialed and conservative member of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals 

Gorsuch listened on January 31 as President Donald Trump nominated him to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February 2016

That will change as the hearings give Democratic senators a chance to press Gorsuch on issues like judicial independence, given Trump's attacks on the judiciary, as well as what they view as Gorsuch's own history of siding with corporations in his 10 years on the bench.

The first day of the hearings Monday was scheduled to feature opening statements from senators, and then from Gorsuch himself. 

Questioning will begin on Tuesday, and votes in committee and on the Senate floor are expected early next month.

The Senate's ranking Democrat has pulled no punches in opposing President Trump's nominee.

'Judge Gorsuch may act like a neutral, calm judge, but his record and his career clearly show that he harbors a right-wing, pro-corporate special interest agenda,' Schumer said at a recent news conference featuring sympathetic plaintiffs Gorsuch had ruled against.

One was a truck driver who claimed he'd been fired for abandoning his truck when it broke down in the freezing cold.

Gorsuch's supporters dispute such criticism and 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.

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 Schumer and others were dissatisfied with these comments and are looking for a more forceful stance on that issue and others.

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has gone after Gorsuch while most moderate Democrats have steered clear of criticizing him openly Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has gone after Gorsuch while most moderate Democrats have steered clear of criticizing him openly

Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has gone after Gorsuch while most moderate Democrats have steered clear of criticizing him openly

Senator Elizabeth Warren last Wednesday showed off petitions calling on senators to oppose Gorsuch Senator Elizabeth Warren last Wednesday showed off petitions calling on senators to oppose Gorsuch

Senator Elizabeth Warren last Wednesday showed off petitions calling on senators to oppose Gorsuch

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, and many remain irate over the treatment of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, who was denied so much as a hearing last year by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

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.

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By Mathias Dillion 03/20/2017 12:29:00