Congress still continues to prove to be just the worst
by Michael Jack O’Brien
Features and List Co-Editor
For the first time since the sudden passing of Judge Antonin Scalia in February of 2016, all nine seats of the Supreme court have been filled. In Judge Scalia’s place is Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, a staunch conservative and constitutionalist who braved a political firestorm as Democrats and Republicans in the Senate brawled over his confirmation. Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation is nothing if not contentious, Senate Republicans needed to enact an unprecedented rule nicknamed “The Nuclear Option” to break Senate Democrat’s filibuster of the confirmation. This rule change, which will be used as a blueprint for all future SCOTUS confirmations allows the Senate to lower the vote threshold for a judge’s confirmation from 60 votes to a “majority vote” regardless of the margin of that majority.
Predictably the vote for Judge Gorsuch’s confirmation was a tight one. All but three Democrats voted “no”, and Republicans voted “yes” unanimously; the final margin of victory ended up as 54 “yes” votes to 45 “no”, confirming Judge Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Despite the controversial rule change, this confirmation is the very first legislative victory for Donald Trump’s young administration, and arguably the longest lasting in his potential legacy (as painful as that is to say for a large amount of us), as Supreme Court Justices serve for up to 30 years before retirement. So, who is Neil Gorsuch, and what can we expect from his time on the Supreme Court?
Judge Gorsuch’s resume is standard in terms of Supreme Court nominees (that is to say it’s pretty goddamn impressive). He holds a BA from Columbia, and Doctorates from both Harvard and Oxford. He went on to work at prestigious Washington law firms and as a clerk for the Supreme Court. After that he joined the United States Court of Appeals 10th circuit in Denver Colorado, where he has served since 2006. During his time as a Judge, Gorsuch gained respect for being a staunch advocate of Constitutional textualism, a style of interpretation that champions the meaning of the constitution as its original drafters intended. This style of interpretation, which is very similar in nature to Constitutional Originalsim, rejects outside sources or present interpretations of constitutional clauses, and instead attempts to discover what the Founding Father’s truly meant by their writing instead of relying on what we think they intended. Gorsuch is in many ways a reflection of the late Antonin Scalia, who was also an advocate of textualism. Conservatives champion this style of judgement for a number of reasons, one being that because the Judge is interpreting the constitution as they believe it was “originally intended”, there is less wiggle room available for interpretation in the present.
Gorsuch is a notable advocate for religious freedom. The Judge has heard cases based on a broad interpretation of the issue that champions religious freedom even in the face of federal law. In the first three days of his time on the Supreme Court, Gorsuch will be expected to pass judgement on a case that will set far reaching precedents for the separation of church and state. The case, named Trinity Lutheran Church vs. Comer, No. 15-557 is based upon the argument that states should be allowed to decide whether to give public funding to religious groups; in the Missouri State Constitution, allocating public funds in the aid of religious groups is banned. If Gorsuch votes in favor of Trinity Lutheran Church, the Supreme Court could change how far state governments can legally distance themselves from religion.
Judge Gorsuch would be given the tie breaking vote on this and many more cases on issues ranging from fair housing policy to corporate suits for human rights abuses abroad. Much like the Citizens United case of 2010, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums of money on elections, this ruling would determine large corporation’s accountability in the eyes of the law, an issue that the Supreme Court is ideologically divided on. Depending on Judge Gorsuch’s decisions, the direction of Constitutional interpretation could dramatically shift to the right.
Alongside this, questions have been raised as to the Judges impartiality to the wishes of the president. Donald Trump, a man not known for discretion or procedure could potentially influence the Justice’s decisions (or at the very least, he might believe that he can). During the 20 hour hearing before his confirmation, Judge Gorsuch claimed total impartiality to the President’s opinions, claiming that he would judge cases in the eyes of the constitution, and no other. This statement is in many ways a reflection of Gorsuch’s dedication to textualism and originalism, indicating that lawmaker’s opinions on the interpretation of the constitution will not be a factor in his decisions. While this might be a relief to Democrats, one must take into account that Gorsuch will serve much longer than the President, and could easily dissent from the opinions of liberal thought, if such a decision was in line with the constitution as Gorsuch interprets it. Aside from this, the senate hearing held last week did not give much insight into the mind of the new Justice, Gorsuch presented himself as relatively untouchable, even in the face of a political barfight in the Senate. Nothing much of substance was said, as the judge withheld his opinions on important issues, even if such questions were deemed important by the Senate.
In the end, only time will tell as to what the Supreme Court will look like in the very near future. Will Gorsuch invite a new era of conservative interpretation of the Constitution? Or will he soften on his textualistic ideologies in order to reach across the aisle? The only thing that we know for sure is this; the time of Supreme Court deadlock under eight justices is now over for the foreseeable future .