The 20 senators on the committee questioned Gorsuch for more than eleven hours Tuesday, with each senator allotted 30 minutes. But there were few fireworks during the long day, even on controversial topics like abortion and President Trump’s travel ban.
“The bottom line that I’d like to convey to you, from the bottom of my heart, is that I’m a fair judge,” the Supreme Court nominee told top judiciary committee Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
On abortion, Gorsuch assured the committee that no member of the Trump Administration had asked him to commit to overturning Roe v. Wade, despite Trump’s campaign pledge to only appoint pro-life judges.
“I have offered no promises on how I would rule in any case to anyone and I don’t think it’d be appropriate for a judge to do so,” Gorsuch said. He told Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal that Trump had mentioned abortion in a meeting only to say that “one of the topics that came up during the campaign was abortion, and it was very divisive and split people evenly.”
When senators asked him for his opinion on particular cases, Gorsuch always demurred, saying it was inappropriate for judges to ever comment on specifics. On Roe, he said it was “a precedent of the United States Supreme Court” that has “been reaffirmed many times.” On whether he agrees with District of Columbia v. Heller, which upholds an individual right to bear arms, he said, “I follow the law. It’s not about agreeing or disagreeing.” And on whether his personal views bear on any case, he said simply, “I leave those at home.”
Gorsuch’s circumspect evasions and folksy humility (“Golly,” he exclaimed at one point) left committee Democrats without much to push against. “I’ll let you off the hook” and “fair enough,” Feinstein said when trying to pin Gorsuch down on abortion and guns. “OK, never mind,” Sen. Al Franken said when Gorsuch repeatedly expressed empathy for the man he ruled against in the so-called frozen trucker case, invoked multiple times in the hearing. “I’ll let it go,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said, abandoning a line of questioning.
“Judge Gorsuch looks like he’s playing dodgeball with the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, who isn’t on the committee, said Tuesday. “He has bent over backward to avoid revealing anything, anything at all, about his judicial philosophy, or the legal issues that concern the American people.”
Democrats were also unable to successfully establish a relationship between Gorsuch and Trump, whether friendly or adversarial. The first question of the day by Republican committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley asked Gorsuch if he would have trouble ruling against the president who appointed him. “That’s a softball, Mr. Chairman,” Gorsuch replied with a smile. “I have no problem ruling against a person or any party.” He reiterated multiple times during the day that “no man is above the law,” including the president. (The biggest softball questions of the day came actually from other Republicans: Sen. Ted Cruz asked Gorsuch about basketball and rodeos, Sen. Ben Sasse asked him to explain the Bill of Rights and Sen. Jeff Flake asked him the famous Reddit question about whether he’d rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses.)
As with other specific cases, Gorsuch wouldn’t take a position on Trump’s travel ban, which is currently being challenged. “I’m not going to say anything here that would give anybody any idea of how I would rule in any case like that,” he told Leahy, who questioned him about the policy. When pressed, Gorsuch cited the Constitution’s First Amendment’s protection for free exercise of religion and Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause.
The only thing Gorsuch said against Trump was something he’d already said privately. He repeated to Blumenthal what he had already told him in their meeting about Trump’s attacks on judges: “When anyone criticizes the honesty, the integrity, or the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening,” Gorsuch said Tuesday. “I find that demoralizing.”
The Democratic Senator who seemed to rattle Gorsuch most was Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who questioned him about controversial comments made by his dissertation advisor and a letter from a former student alleging he claimed that women manipulate maternity leave. “I’ve had a lot of professors … and I didn’t agree with everything they said,” Gorsuch said of his advisor. And he forcefully defended himself against the accusations in the student’s letter. “It’s disturbing to me,” he said of women who say they’ve been asked about family plans in job interviews. “I am shocked it still happens every year that I get women, not men, raising their hand to that question.”
Gorsuch’s responses likely didn’t yield much for Democrats to tout as extreme, and today’s hearing could put them on shakier footing if they decide to filibuster his nomination. (Gorsuch cited numerous times the statistic that 97% of the cases he’s decided were unanimous, and he’s been in the majority 99% of the time.) But if any senators were disappointed, they’ll get the chance to go back at him tomorrow for a second round of questioning.
“I’ve experienced more cameras in the past few weeks than I have in my whole lifetime by a long, long way,” Gorsuch said of his confirmation process. He’s not free of the flashes yet.