Neil Gorsuch, a conservative appellate judge whose approach closely matches that of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a revered figure on the right, was nominated to the Supreme Court late Tuesday by President Trump, setting up a pitched battle with Democrats.
Trump made the announcement in a brief ceremony in the East Room of the White House during which he praised Gorsuch for his legal scholarship and his adherence to conservative legal principles.
“I have always felt that after the defense of the country, the most important decision a president can make is selecting a member of the Supreme Court,” Trump said. “Judge Gorsuch has outstanding legal skills. He could have had any job with any law firm for any amount of money,” yet chose to devote himself to legal scholarship and the judiciary.
Gorsuch, standing beside his wife, Louise, also briefly addressed the gathering.
“As this process now moves forward in the Senate, I look forward to speaking to members on both sides of the aisle,” he said. He hinted at the type of Supreme Court Justice he would be, suggesting it would be the text of the law that would guide him.
“A judge who likes every opinion he decides is likely a bad judge,” he said.
Republicans welcome the announcement and uniformly praised Gorsuch.
“Judge Gorsuch’s record shows that he will treat everyone equally — regardless of race, sex, religion, sexual orientation, political views, influence, or wealth. And I believe that like Justice Scalia, Judge Gorsuch will be a principled justice,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.).
But Democrats denounced the pick.
“Judge Gorsuch’s record reveals he holds radical views far outside the mainstream of American legal thought," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. “The consequences of placing President Trump’s justice on the Supreme Court could not be more serious or far-reaching.”
Gorsuch, 49, has a well-established pedigree in conservative and Republican circles. His mother, Anne Gorsuch, was administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Reagan in the 1980s, and his legal opinions on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, based in Denver, square with conservative doctrine on freedom of religious expression, government regulation, and law enforcement.
He is known on both the left and the right for his elegant writing style, and like Scalia himself, compelling legal arguments with the potential to reshape the law.
“He is one of the most respected conservative legal intellectuals on the federal bench,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
Rosen clerked alongside Gorsuch on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He said that Gorsuch had the capacity for “rethinking [legal principles] from the ground up.”
As a former clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy, Gorsuch potentially could have significant influence, Rosen said.
“In some ways, he is the nominee most likely to change the law,” Rosen said.
Unlike Scalia, though, Gorsuch engages with colleagues and lawyers without the sarcasm and acerbic bite that so often characterized Scalia’s time on the bench.
Among conservative legal scholars, Gorsuch is known for adherence to the legal doctrine calling on jurists to defer to legislative judgments. Such deference has come to be known as the “originalist” approach, where jurists try to divine what the drafters of both statutes and the Constitution intended.
And while his views are staunchly conservative, he seems to have avoided becoming a target for opposition during his time on the 10th Circuit, said University of Richmond constitutional law professor Carl Tobias.
“He has a lot of strong attributes; he is just as conservative, if not more conservative than [other potential nominees], but he has managed to avoid becoming a lightening rod,” Tobias said.
Democrats and liberal interest groups pledged to fight the nomination, but they face long odds. Republicans control the Senate with an effective 52-48 majority. Under normal circumstances Democrats would have had enough votes to block the nomination, even though they are in the minority.
That is because for years, Senate rules required that nominees receive at least 60 of the Senate’s 100 votes.
But the rule was weakened by the Democrats when they controlled the chamber during the Obama presidency. Although the restriction was retained for judicial nominees, Republicans could lift the rule with a simple majority vote, which they appear determined to do if they fail to persuade enough Democrats to join them.
Gorsuch was born in Denver, but moved to Washington when his mother was appointed to head the EPA in 1981. He attended Georgetown Preparatory School and did his undergraduate work at Columbia University. He received his law degree from Harvard University law school in 1991 and earned a doctor of philosophy at Oxford University in 2004.
He clerked for Judge David Sentelle, a conservative jurist, on the D.C. Circuit court of appeals from 1991 through 1992, was a Supreme Court clerk for Justices Byron White and Kennedy in 1993 and 1994, and after a stint as a corporate lawyer, worked for a time in the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush.
Gorsuch has staked out a clearly conservative view on religious expression, finding in the Hobby Lobby case, for example, that employers could not under the Affordable Care Act be required to provide insurance that covered contraception for their employees if that violated their religious views. To do so would amount to an unconstitutional breach of their right to adhere to their religious beliefs.
He has questioned the doctrine of judicial deference given to regulatory agencies’ interpretation of law, a view that could curtail the enforcement powers of federal agencies.
He and his wife have two daughters and live in Boulder, Colo.