Dems land few punches on Gorsuch

Dems land few punches on Gorsuch
© Greg Nash

Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch maintained a polite demeanor during Tuesday’s marathon questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, sprinkling his responses with “golly” and “goodness” but refusing to answer questions on how he might rule from the bench.

Democrats repeatedly sought to get under Gorsuch’s skin, but President Trump’s nominee rarely appeared ruffled during his first day of questioning, and even seemed to charm senior Democrats at times.

He told ranking member Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinTrump's Democratic tax dilemma Feinstein: Trump immigration policies 'cruel and arbitrary' The Memo: Could Trump’s hard line work on North Korea? MORE (D-Calif.) that he wished he could answer her questions more fully, and marveled at Sen. Patrick LeahyPatrick LeahyImmigration battlefield widens for Trump, GOP Grassley shouldn't allow Senate Democrats to block judicial nominees Trump’s rhetoric and bluster could lose US an ally in Mexico MORE’s (D-Vt.) creativity in framing his queries.

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When Feinstein asked whether he would submit to the record examples of times he ruled against powerful interests and in favor of “the little guy,” Gorsuch replied, “Oh, goodness, I’ll name a bunch of them right now,” before catching himself and saying, “I’m sorry, senator. Of course.”

His polite demeanor seemed to win her over a little, and when he declined to speak about his personal views of the contrasting opinions in the landmark gun control case District of Columbia v. Heller, Feinstein relented.

“All right, I’ll let you off the hook,” she said.

Gorsuch’s performance seemed to take inspiration from the testimony Chief Justice John Roberts delivered to the committee after being nominated by President George W. Bush 11 years ago.  

Roberts compared himself to a humble baseball umpire whose job is to “call balls and strikes,” not swing for the fences.

Gorsuch adopted a similar strategy Tuesday, repeatedly invoking the solemn duty to “apply the law impartially” that comes with a judge’s “honest black polyester” robe.

The stakes were higher in his second day before the committee, as it was the first opportunity senators had to question him in public.

Gorsuch’s sharpest retorts were prompted by Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseAmerican horses deserve safety, and the SAFE Act Lawmakers target horse meat trade Dems introduce legislation to protect manned aircraft from drones MORE (D-R.I.) and Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTrump quietly putting his stamp on the courts Grassley shouldn't allow Senate Democrats to block judicial nominees Senate Dems push Trump admin to protect nursing home residents' right to sue MORE (D-Minn.), who showed impatience with his repeated refusals to speak to his personal views.

Whitehouse demanded to know whether Gorsuch knew who had helped fund a $10 million Judicial Crisis Network ad campaign supporting his nomination and pressed him on whether he had any knowledge of the activities of billionaire Phil Anschutz, who reportedly lobbied the administration to make the pick.

“I don’t know individuals who are contributing. I don’t know that,” Gorsuch said.

When Whitehouse asked why wealthy donors might spend so much to support him, Gorsuch said, “Ask them.” 

“I can’t, because I don’t know who they are,” Whitehouse replied. 

Whitehouse tried to pin the nominee down on the debate over the corrupting influence of money in politics, losing patience when Gorsuch dodged the question about his personal views by referring to a 1973 Supreme Court case on campaign finance regulations.

“I’m asking, actually, you,” Whitehouse said.

That seemed to get a rise out of the until-then unflappable Gorsuch.

“I’m giving you my answer the best I can, which is the First Amendment, which I’m sworn to uphold as a judge, contains two competing messages,” he replied.

Franken slammed Gorsuch’s dissent in a 10th U.S. Circuit Court decision that sided with a truck driver who disobeyed an employer’s order when he thought he was at risk of freezing to death as “absurd.”

“I have had a career identifying absurdity, and I know it when I see it,” the former “Saturday Night Live” star said. “It makes me question your judgment.”

Gorsuch appeared close to breaking from his cool demeanor when Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharTrump quietly putting his stamp on the courts CNN's Zeleny: Leaderless Democrats 'in complete disrepair and disarray' Lacking White House plan, Senate focuses on infrastructure MORE (D-Minn.) questioned whether his originalist approach to the law would allow for a woman to become president, given that women couldn’t vote when the Constitution was ratified.

“I’m not looking to take us back to quill pens and horse and buggy,” he began, but when she interrupted to ask for a straightforward response, his voice rose and he emphatically said, “Of course women can be president of the United States.”

“I’m the father of two daughters, and I hope one of them turns out to be president,” he added.

Sen. Richard DurbinDick DurbinOPINION | DACA helps people achieve the American dream, don't take it away Immigration battlefield widens for Trump, GOP 'Dreamers' deadline looms for Trump MORE (D-Ill.) also received a short reply when he pressed Gorsuch about his relationship with his dissertation supervisor at Oxford University, John Finnis, whom Democrats have accused of having “extreme anti-LGBT views.”  

Gorsuch tried to defuse the tension with a reference to young adult literature, citing the “Harry Potter”-like atmosphere of his mentor’s office and saying Finnis “did not let an argument that I was working on go unchallenged from any direction.”

When pressed by Durbin, who asked, “And what about LGBTQ individuals?” Gorsuch said: “What about them? They’re people.”

He did all he could to keep the drama to a minimum as the day dragged on.

He admitted to being somewhat intimidated by the Senate grilling, apologized to his wife for putting her through the ordeal, joked with the clerks and reminisced about his chats with former Supreme Court Justice Byron White.

Gorsuch appeared to win points with Leahy, a longtime Judiciary Committee member, saying he “admired the various ways” Leahy tried to dig a substantive answer out of him on the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That prompted laughter as Gorsuch gushed that Leahy would be a “formidable companion in the courtroom.”

The former Vermont prosecutor, who loves talking about his early career, all but blushed and said, “I’m just a lawyer from a small town.”

Republicans on the panel were clearly allied with the nominee, pitching friendly questions and seeking to dispel any notion that he would shy away from standing up to Trump.

Gorsuch insisted he was his “own man” at one point, after Franken noted that White House chief of staff Reince Priebus recently said his confirmation could potentially change 40 years of law.

“Respectfully, Mr. Priebus doesn’t speak for me, and I don’t speak for him,” Gorsuch said. “I don’t appreciate it when people characterize me. ... I am a judge. I am my own man.”

He said to Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamGraham: Trump's Charlottesville rhetoric 'dividing Americans, not healing them' OPINION: Congress should censure Trump for his unfit conduct Supporting 'Dreamers' is our civic and moral duty MORE (R-S.C.) that Trump never asked him to rule against the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.

“Senator, I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch said of if the president had sought such a promise. “It’s not what judges do. I don’t do it at that end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and they shouldn’t do it at this end either, respectfully.”

The hearing became almost syrupy when Sen. Ted CruzTed CruzThe media couldn't be more blatant in distorting Trump's words on Charlottesville Curtis wins GOP primary for House seat vacated by Jason Chaffetz Kimmel: Let’s make Trump a king so he has no power MORE (R-Texas), a former Supreme Court clerk himself, asked for Gorsuch’s fondest memories of clerking for White.

And Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) helped lighten the tone after a harsh line of questioning from Franken, praising Gorsuch’s stamina over hours of questioning.

“How in the world is Gorsuch able to go so many hours at a time without peeing?” Sasse asked, reading a text from his wife.

“The [Supreme Court] bladder is something that stands in awe,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellTrump’s isolation grows Ellison: Trump has 'level of sympathy' for neo-Nazis, white supremacists Trump touts endorsement of second-place finisher in Alabama primary MORE (R-Ky.) told reporters Tuesday the Senate is on track to vote on Gorsuch before lawmakers leave for a two-week recess on April 7.

But Senate Minority Leader Chuck SchumerCharles SchumerDemocrats urge Trump to condemn Charlottesville violence Melania Trump on Charlottesville protests: 'No good comes from violence' It's time for McConnell to fight with Trump instead of against him MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren: Education Dept lawyer may have violated conflict-of-interest laws Congress should think twice on the Israel Anti-Boycott Act Sanders plans to introduce single-payer bill in September MORE (D-Mass.) called on Republicans to delay the vote because of the ongoing investigation into coordination between Trump’s campaign team and Russian officials.