By Tara Helfman
On the evening of January 31, 2017, the steps of the Supreme Court resembled a frantic game of Mad Libs. Clusters of protestors had gathered in front of the high court to await President Trump’s nomination of a successor to the vacancy left by the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia almost one year earlier. Bundled against the cold, they held fill-in-the-blank signs that spoke more eloquently to the politicization of the nomination process than any stem-winder ever could:
But that night, a president who had won office in part by promising Americans the best of everything, from the “best wall” on the border with Mexico to the “best deals” with our trading partners, delivered on one of his campaign promises. “When Justice Scalia passed away suddenly last February,” President Trump announced, “I made a promise to the American people: If I were elected president, I would find the very best judge in the country for the Supreme Court.” The hyperbole is excusable: Neil Gorsuch is certainly one of the best jurists.
His educational background is impeccable: a B.A. from Columbia, a J.D. from Harvard, and a D.Phil. from Oxford, where he was a British Marshall Scholar. His professional background is unimpeachable: clerkships on the D.C. Circuit and the United States Supreme Court, years in private practice, and a stint at the Department of Justice as deputy associate attorney general. And for the last 10 years, Gorsuch has served on the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, where he has earned a reputation for uncompromising textualism, rigorous originalism, and lucid, engaging judicial opinions.
None of this mattered to the Sharpie-wielding protestors on the steps of the Supreme Court, who finally had the proper noun they needed to finish their posters. Nor does it seem to matter to the Democratic leadership in the Senate. The fact is that, whoever the nominee and whatever his credentials, the battle lines in the struggle over Scalia’s successor had been drawn long before the nation ever heard the name Neil Gorsuch. They had been drawn almost a year ago, when Senate Republicans refused to give Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s nominee to the vacancy, a hearing.
Article II of the Constitution vests in the president the sole power to nominate justices of the Supreme Court, but it vests in the Senate the power to confirm those nominees. When President Obama put Garland’s name forward in a tumultuous election year, Senate Republicans argued that the nomination was more properly left to the next president, whoever that might be. It was a gamble: Denying Judge Garland a hearing might have meant trading a moderate Obama nominee for an activist Clinton nominee. Candidate Trump upped the ante by releasing a list of 21 names from which he pledged to select a Supreme Court nominee.
Indeed, until the late hours of November 8, it seemed that the Republican Senate had overplayed its hand. But when Trump swept the Rust Belt table, Democrats branded the gambit nothing short of grand larceny, the “theft” of a Supreme Court seat that rightly belonged to President Obama’s nominee. To be sure, the Constitution does not require the Senate to give a hearing to every Supreme Court nominee, but why let reality stand in the way of rhetoric? Enter Judge Gorsuch, who is supremely qualified for the job, but whom Senate Democrats are effectively accusing of fencing stolen goods.
That opponents of the Gorsuch nomination have adopted #rememberMerrickGarland as their battle cry has less to do with the comparative merits of the nominees than it does with the procedural corner into which Senate Democrats have painted themselves. In 2013, under the leadership of Harry Reid, Senate Democrats changed the procedure for ending the filibuster of presidential nominees for executive and judicial positions from a super-majority of 60 votes to a simple majority of 51. At the time, some Democrats, including now–Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, resisted the rule change on the ground that it would annihilate any remaining incentives for bipartisan compromise on nominees. They were right: The “nuclear option,” as the rule change was called, has all but pitted the parties against each other in a zero-sum competition over presidential nominations.
Supreme Court nominees were exempted from the 2013 rule so, for the time being, Gorsuch will still need a 60-vote majority to agree to end debate on his nomination (the filibuster prevents the cloture of such debate). At that point, assuming the point is reached, he can be confirmed by what is likely to be a simple majority somewhere in the 50s. Now Senator Schumer is leading the charge in the Senate to resist confirming Gorsuch, citing the “unprecedented strain on the Constitution” unleashed by the Trump administration. In an op-ed in Politico, Schumer explained his party’s position: “[The President’s] actions show a lack of respect for the separation of powers—and that’s why Senate Democrats will do everything we can to make sure that the next Supreme Court justice will be an independent check on an out-of-control executive.” For his part, Trump has urged Senate Republicans to push the button and extend the nuclear option to high-court nominees.
Lost in this political arms race is the judicial record of a man whose entire judicial philosophy is predicated on a profound commitment to the separation of powers. Gorsuch’s understanding of this doctrine is not, as Senate Democrats are deploying the phrase, tantamount to wholesale judicial opposition to the Trump agenda. Rather, to Judge Gorsuch, the separation of powers is the very bedrock of political and individual liberty in the United States, the very genius of the American Constitution …
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INSCT Affiliated Faculty Member Tara Helfman is an Associate Professor at Syracuse Law and an expert in international law, constitutional law, and the law of the sea.