God, Gorsuch, and the Supreme Court

On Friday, April 7, the United States Senate voted to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch as the 113th Justice of the United States Supreme Court. A few days later, the smiling silver-haired justice was sworn in. 

The newest addition to the United States Supreme Court -- Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The newest addition to the United States Supreme Court — Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch.

In understanding Justice Gorsuch there are two important aspects to consider. First, a growing amount of information on Justice Gorsuch’s character has come out, both through his long career, as well as during the long process of confirmation hearings that he underwent before the Senate vote.  Second, we must keep in mind his impressive history of legal analysis, both as a judge and a lawyer. The American Bar Association said that Gorsuch was “well-qualified” to serve as a supreme court justice, which is their highest rating. In order to best understand Gorsuch, and how he adds to the court, we will go through some of his most important cases.

In his opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gorsuch spoke in a deeply passionate manner about some of the defining experiences, memories, and stories of his life. Several times, he seemed like he was brought close to tears, whether from thoughts about recently lost relatives, or from recalling his happiest memories with his two daughters. He spent a great deal of time evoking the lessons that he had learned from his parents and grandparents. His mother served in several important roles, including as head of the EPA, and Gorsuch recalled her courage. Similarly, he recalled his father’s love.

Gorsuch has a distinguished set of credentials, including a B.A. from Columbia University (Phi Beta Kappa), a J.D. from Harvard Law School (Cum Laude), and a P.H.D. from Oxford University, where he was an esteemed Marshall Scholar. However, he mentioned none of these degrees in his hearings, humbly preferring to share the lessons that he learned from people out in the world to those taught in any classroom. Rather than seeking to impress the Senate Committee with stories of his accomplishments or constant reminders of his numerous achievements, he declared that the senators should examine his record as a judge and a lawyer to determine if he was fit to serve on the Supreme Court. One statistic that he did emphasize was his record of agreement with other judges and how often this happens for any judge. He emphasized that judges try to understand and pass judgments based on the law and the facts of the case. While on the 10th Circuit Court, Gorsuch made 97% of his rulings as part of a unanimous panel, and more than 99% of his rulings as part of the majority. Seldom did the judges of the court come to different understandings.

Statistics and legal judgments did not dominate Gorsuch’s entire remarks, and were only a small part of how he introduced himself to the committee and to the American people. Pausing part way through the remarks to hug his wife, it quickly became obvious that the Gorsuch values the concept of love. A true Colorado native, with deep family roots in the state, Gorsuch also gave details of his personal life, from his love of fly-fishing to tales about the garden, goat, and chickens that his family raises at their home in Boulder County, Colorado.

Perhaps some of the most important parts of what Justice Gorsuch stated in his remarks were the lessons that he had learned from the two members of the Supreme Court that he clerked for: Justices Byron White and Anthony Kennedy. While Gorsuch almost seemed more impressed by White’s achievements in the NFL than his own Rhodes Scholarship, Gorsuch quickly became serious, stating: “He followed the law, wherever it took him, without fear or favor to anyone!” He quickly proceeded to declare what he found most admirable about Justice Kennedy. “He showed me that judges can disagree, without being disagreeable; that everyone who comes to court deserves respect; that a case isn’t just a number or a name, but a life’s story, and a human being with equal dignity to my own.”

Finally, Gorsuch spoke about two more of his heroes from the Supreme Court, and what their examples taught him. First, the seat filled by Gorsuch on the Supreme Court was once occupied by the memorable Justice Anthony Scalia. Gorsuch said of Scalia that, “He reminded us that words matter; that the judge’s job is to follow the words that are in the law, not replace them with those that aren’t…[Scalia] fished with the enthusiasm of a New Yorker: he thought that the harder you slapped the line on the water, that somehow the more the fish would love it.” Finally, Gorsuch finished his remarks on what he had learned from members of the Supreme Court by referencing Justice Jackson, who was a prominent Democrat before joining the Supreme Court, and was famous both for his dissent in Korematsu v. United States, where he opposed President Roosevelt’s executive order that interned Japanese-Americans, and for his role as a prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials after the Second World War. Gorsuch referenced Justice Jackson by remarking that, “He wrote so clearly that everyone could understand his decisions. He never hid behind legal jargon.” While Justice Gorsuch went on to extol the importance of an independent judiciary and several other meaningful values, these stories illustrate what Justice Gorsuch thinks is most important.

Gorsuch spent many years on the bench prior to joining the Supreme Court, and three of his cases are worth discussing. First and perhaps most famous was the case of Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius. In this case, Gorsuch and the majority of the 10th Circuit decided that the Obamacare requirement that health insurance must apply to all forms of birth control, could not apply to private companies with strongly held religious beliefs against birth control. This decision was later upheld by the Supreme Court.

A second case worth noting is Gutierrez-Brizuela v. Lynch. Gorsuch and the other members of the 10th Circuit decided unanimously that a case involving an illegal immigrant, previously decided under an ambiguous statute by the Board of Immigration Appeals, ought to be granted a review by the judiciary. This ruling is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that Justice Gorsuch thinks about the importance of separation of powers. It provides further evidence that Gorsuch will be his own man, not simply a voice for President Trump on the court, as a minority of Democrats have unfairly surmised. Second, the case demonstrates Gorsuch’s willingness to challenge precedent.

Gorsuch’s third notable case is less dramatic, and relates to the civil liberties of ex-felons. This case – United States v. Carloss – nevertheless stands out as important to understanding Gorsuch’s legal views. In this case, federal agents from the ATF followed up on a tip that an ex-felon, Ralph Carloss, had illegal firearms. The agents entered into the unfenced yard of Carloss, despite several “No Trespassing” signs put up in the yard. The lower court decided that the agents had implied consent based on the common customs of the land. Gorsuch disagreed with the lower court’s ruling; in his opinion, the government had taken away Carloss’s rights by acting against the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees against illegal search and seizure, and that the agents only should have entered Carloss’s yard in an emergency, or with a warrant.

In his career as a judge, Justice Gorsuch decided over 3,000 cases. The three cases outlined above may not representative of all of those cases, but they represent Justice Gorsuch’s fierce defense of the law over personal notions of justice or politics. Now that Gorsuch has joined the Supreme Court, we hope that the court will benefit from his deep humility, cheerful humor, and his deep dedication to following the law, wherever it takes him.