By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Neil Gorsuch, a U.S. Supreme Court nominee by President Donald Trump, emphasized on Monday the need for judicial independence even as Trump criticizes jurists who have ruled against him, while Democrats question whether he will rule against abortion rights and gun control while favoring corporations.
With the ideological balance of the Supreme Court at stake, the Senate Judiciary Committee opened its confirmation hearing for Gorsuch, a conservative judge on the Colorado federal court of appeals. Republicans hailed Gorsuch, 49, as highly qualified for a life appointment as a judge.
“I think we are off to a good start,” Republican Chuck Grassley, the committee chairman, said later, and senators had their first opportunity to question Gorsuch on Tuesday.
Democrats on the committee noted that Gorsuch has a chance to join the court only because Senate Republicans last year refused to consider the nomination of former Democratic President Barack Obama from federal appeals judge Merrick Garland. Despite slim chances of blocking his nomination in the Republican-led Senate, Democrats raised questions about Gorsuch’s suitability for the job.
“Our job is to determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable conservative, conventional or not,” said the panel’s top Democrat, Dianne Feinstein.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Trump nominated him on January 31, Gorsuch defended his court record against Democratic criticism of his rulings.
Gorsuch, speaking mainly in generalities that could not cause him any problem, emphasized the need for “neutral and independent judges to apply the law”, warned against judicial overreach and referred to “the modest position that judges must occupy in a democracy . “
“If the judges were just secret legislators, declaring not what the law is but what they would like it to be, the very idea of government by the people and for the people would be at risk,” Gorsuch said in comments in harmony with the conservatives. Criticism of unelected “activist judges”.
Gorsuch, an affable and collected jurist, gave the Democrats very little ammunition to use against him, although there could be more drama when he answers the questions. The hearing could last four days, providing classic Washington political theater.
Grassley said the panel is likely to vote on the nomination on April 3, with the full Senate likely shortly thereafter.
If Gorsuch is confirmed by the Senate, as expected, he would reestablish a narrow 5-4 conservative majority in court. The seat has been vacant for 13 months, since the death of Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016.
Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal underscored the importance of judicial independence at a time when Trump has criticized federal judges who have ruled against him on matters that include two executive orders, suspended by the courts, to prevent people from various nations. Muslim majority enter the United States. State.
Blumenthal said it was not “idle speculation” to suggest that the Supreme Court could be asked to enforce a subpoena against Trump, citing the testimony of FBI Director James Comey before Congress on Monday confirming an ongoing investigation into an alleged collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
Republican Ted Cruz said there is no reason for Gorsuch to be questioned about Trump, noting that previous nominees have not had to speak about the accusations made against the president who nominated them.
Democrats highlighted cases in which Gorsuch has spoken out and questioned the influence of conservative interest groups in advising Trump on his selection.
Feinstein emphasized abortion. Conservatives have long opposed the landmark Roe v. Wade of 1973 that legalizes abortion across the country. Feinstein called that decision and others since that reinforce abortion rights as “super precedents” that deserve special deference.
Feinstein cited two legal opinions of Gorsuch in which he said that he “argued in favor of making it difficult to convict criminals who possess weapons.”
Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy said he was concerned that Gorsuch’s conservative method of interpreting the Constitution “will go beyond being a philosophy and become an agenda” that is anti-abortion, anti-environmental and pro-business.
“Will you allow the government to meddle in the privacy and personal liberties of Americans? Will you elevate the rights of corporations above those of real people? Will you approve a president whose administration has claimed that the executive branch is not subject to judicial review? ” Leahy said.
Many Democrats maintain that Trump’s party “stole” a Supreme Court seat by freezing Garland.
“His nomination is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government,” Senator Dick Durbin told Gorsuch. “That’s why Senate Republicans held this Supreme Court seat vacant for over a year and left 30 judicial candidates who had received bipartisan approval from this committee to die on the Senate calendar when President Obama left office. position”.
Gorsuch said he has tried to treat everyone who goes to court fairly and with respect.
“I have decided cases of Native Americans seeking to protect tribal lands, of class action actions such as one that guarantees compensation to victims of nuclear waste pollution by corporations in Colorado,” he said. He also said that he has ruled in favor of disabled students, prisoners and workers who allege violations of civil rights, and immigrants who entered the country illegally.
The court’s ideological slant could help determine the outcome of cases involving the death penalty, abortion, gun control, environmental regulations, transgender rights, the right to vote, immigration, religious freedom, presidential powers, and more.
Republicans hold 52 of the 100 Senate seats. Under current rules, Gorsuch would need 60 votes to secure confirmation. If Gorsuch can’t muster 60, Republicans could change the rules to allow simple majority confirmation.