Gorsuch starts to show his conservative cards

Gorsuch starts to show his conservative cards
© Greg Nash

Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is starting to show signs of how conservative he will be on the bench.

The court’s newest member frustrated Democrats during his confirmation hearings by refusing to say how he would rule on various issues. Gorsuch’s answers left some wondering whether he would be a justice in the mold of the man he was replacing — the late Justice Antonin Scalia — or an ideological wild card.

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The answer is now becoming apparent.

In a spate of decisions and dissents, Gorsuch aligned with Clarence Thomas, the most conservative justice on the bench.

On Monday, Gorsuch joined Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito to dissent in part from the court’s majority decision to uphold part of President Trump’s travel ban. Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch said the court did not go far enough, arguing that it should have reinstated the full ban rather than excluding people who have a “bona fide” relationship to a person or entity in the U.S.

Gorsuch then joined Thomas to dissent from the court’s refusal to hear a case challenging a California concealed-carry law. That law requires a gun owner to show a particularized need, substantiated by documentary evidence, to carry a firearm for self-defense.

“Even if other members of the court do not agree that the Second Amendment likely protects a right to public carry, the time has come for the court to answer this important question definitively,” Thomas wrote.

Gorsuch also wrote his own dissent Monday, which Thomas and Alito joined, disagreeing with the court’s decision to overturn an Arkansas state court ruling that allowed the state health department to refuse to list same-sex spouses on birth certificates.

“As the state court recognized, nothing in Obergefell indicates that a birth registration regime based on biology, one no doubt with many analogues across the country and throughout history, offends the Constitution,” Gorsuch wrote, citing the court’s landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage.

The opinion and Gorsuch’s dissent came on the two-year anniversary of that decision in Obergefell v. Hodges.

“From what we see today, we expect [Gorsuch] will join the ultraconservative side of the court and continue to vote in opposition to same sex marriage, women’s rights and in favor of the death penalty,” said Nan Aron, founder and president of the liberal Alliance for Justice, which opposed Gorsuch’s confirmation.

Gorsuch also joined the majority in a religious liberty case Monday, ruling that a state cannot deny a church government funding for a secular project simply because it is a religious institution.

“He’s showing every sign of being one of the more conservative justices on the court,” Aron said, adding that’s it’s still early in his career.

Gorsuch joined the court on April 17 and heard arguments in just 13 of the more than 60 cases that were argued during the term, which ended Monday.

Conservative supporters of Gorsuch note that the 49-year-old has been far from shy in his early days on the court.

Elizabeth Slattery, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said Gorsuch unseated the previous record holder for most questions asked during his first oral arguments.

She said Gorsuch asked 22 questions, beating Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who asked 15 questions while hearing her first case.

“I think what we’ve seen so far is the Neil Gorsuch that was sold to us is the Neil Gorsuch we got,” Slattery said.

She said Gorsuch stuck to the letter of the law in his first majority opinion, which his colleagues joined unanimously, ruling that regulations for debt collectors under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act don’t extend to companies that purchase debts.

In his decision, Gorsuch said the judiciary’s role is “to apply, not amend, the work of the People’s representatives.”

President Trump promised to name someone in the mold of Scalia, someone with an originalist view of the Constitution, and many court watchers say he delivered just that.

“It’s no surprise he would agree with Thomas, who was the one most frequently agreeing with Justice Scalia,” said Carrie Severino, chief counsel and policy director of the Judicial Crisis Network.

In a statement, Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, said Gorsuch’s rulings this week show he’s an “unabashed defender of constitutionalism.”

“That says a lot about both what Gorsuch will be like as a Supreme Court Justice and what the president can be counted on to do as more high court vacancies occur,” he said.