On January 31, President Donald Trump nominated Neil Gorsuch, a federal appeals court judge in Colorado, to the United States Supreme Court. Today, Gorsuch went before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee for the first of a series of hearings to determine whether he should fill the important position.
Gorsuch, 49, is a respected conservative judge. He earned a law degree from Harvard University. So far, his nomination has been low-key, as Congress has been focusing more on other issues. They include Trump’s claim that former President Barack Obama had been wiretapping him before and after the 2016 election, and a new health care bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, also called Obamacare.
But the process will likely heat up this week. Democratic senators are expected to press Gorsuch on his history of siding with corporations during his 10 years as a judge.
“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," Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said at a recent news conference.
Gorsuch's supporters disagree. They say that the judge is extremely qualified because he has the experience and the temperament to serve on the Supreme Court.
Replacing Justice Scalia
As the nation’s top court, the Supreme Court decides if the country’s laws are valid under the U.S. Constitution, and explains how laws should be applied. It represents the judicial branch of the U.S. government, and acts as a check on the powers of Congress and the president. The Supreme Court’s rulings on legal issues are final and cannot be appealed. (Click here to watch a video about the branches of government.) Supreme Court justices serve for life. Trump’s choice of Gorsuch, therefore, could shape the U.S. legal system on critical issues for decades to come.
Trump selected Gorsuch to fill the seat left open by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Shortly after Scalia’s death, President Barack Obama nominated Judge Merrick Garland to the court. But Senate Republicans refused to consider Garland, saying the seat should be filled after the 2016 presidential election. The Supreme Court is made up of one chief justice and eight associate justices. Scalia’s death left the court with the potential for 4-4 ties in its rulings.
A Divided Hearing
Democrats headed into the hearings on Monday divided over how hard to fight Gorsuch’s nomination. Some consider him a somewhat reasonable choice. However, Democrats are under pressure from liberal voters to resist Trump at every turn. They’re also still angry about the Republicans’ treatment of Merrick Garland, who was denied a hearing.
For Gorsuch to officially get the job, the U.S. Senate must approve him. The confirmation process can be difficult. Under current rules, a simple majority—51 votes—is needed to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. But several Senate Democrats plan to oppose Gorsuch and filibuster, or delay the vote. If that happens, Gorsuch would then need 60 votes to get approved.
In February, Vice President Mike Pence said it would not be appropriate for Democrats to filibuster. "This seat does not belong to any party or any ideology or any interest group. This seat on the Supreme Court belongs to the American people, and the American people deserve a vote on the floor of the United States Senate."
Monday morning’s hearing featured opening statements from senators and Gorsuch himself. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat, reminded the Senate that Gorsuch was only nominated because Garland was denied a hearing. “Our job is determine whether Judge Gorsuch is a reasonable mainstream conservative, or is he not,” she said.
Questioning of Gorsuch will begin on Tuesday. Voting on the Senate floor is expected early next month.