Divide over Neil Gorsuch on display as hearings open

Graphic by Laura ErlansonNeil Gorsuch's confirmation hearings opened March 20 with Republicans and Democrats, pro-lifers and pro-choicers, and conservatives and liberals pressing their conflicting cases regarding his nomination to the Supreme Court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began the latest hearings in what has been an often stridently contentious process for the last three decades with a day of opening statements—first from the 20 members of the panel, then from the nominee. Gorsuch's statement came after the deadline for this article.

A committee vote on Gorsuch is scheduled for April 3.

President Trump nominated Gorsuch, 49, to the high court in late January, nearly a year after the death of Associate Justice Antonin Scalia. Like Scalia, Gorsuch—a judge for the last 10 years on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver—possesses a philosophy and record of interpreting the Constitution and laws based on its original meaning and their text, respectively.

Trump was able to make a nomination after the Republican-controlled Senate refused to consider President Obama's selection last March of another appeals court judge, Merrick Garland of the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

While Gorsuch's philosophy and record—as well as the fact he is the nominee of a controversial president—have produced the expected divide over filling a spot on the nine-member court, Southern Baptist leaders expressed support for or appeared favorable toward his confirmation.

Frank S. Page, president of the SBC Executive Committee, told Baptist Press March 20, "[W]e pray for God's will to be done.

"In my opinion, he is balanced in his judgments, committed to our Constitution, and will uphold the law of the land," Page said in written remarks. "It is noteworthy that he was confirmed to the Tenth Circuit in 2006 by a unanimous vote of the Senate that included, among others, former Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton."

Travis Wussow, general counsel and vice president for public policy of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told BP in written comments, “Judge Gorsuch was an outstanding nomination by President Trump for the Supreme Court, and we are grateful that his nomination is now receiving its hearing. Judge Gorsuch is a principled and fair jurist, and we look forward to his speedy confirmation by the U.S. Senate.”

Ronnie Floyd, the SBC's immediate past president, said in a written statement, "We are in desperate need of judges and justices who understand that the Constitution is not a living document to be constantly manipulated to advance one's personal preference.

"Throughout his career, Neil Gorsuch has demonstrated that he, like the late Justice Antonin Scalia, understands this principle," said Floyd, an Arkansas pastor. "Having him confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice would add a much-needed voice of balance and reason to our nation's judiciary."

The ERLC sponsored a letter Feb. 1 in which more than 50 Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders called for confirmation of Gorsuch.

Sixty national and state pro-life organizations weighed in on Gorsuch March 20, urging senators in a letter to confirm him. They described him as a judge "possessed of deep intelligence and true fair-mindedness." The pro-life leaders cited his "keen understanding and respect" for religious freedom.

Among the organizations whose leaders endorsed the letter were the Susan B. Anthony List, National Right to Life Committee, Concerned Women for America and Family Research Council.

The leading members of the Judiciary Committee reflected the divide over Gorsuch in their opening statements.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the committee, said Gorsuch's "body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment" to the separation of powers between the federal and state governments and among the three equal branches of the federal government.

In this constitutional division, judges "play a crucial, but limited, role," Grassley said. "Judges are not free to rewrite statutes to get the results they believe are more just.

"For sure, judges aren't free to update the Constitution."

The Democrats' committee leader—Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California—said it is "really troubling" to her to hear Gorsuch described as an "originalist and strict constructionist" regarding his interpretation of the Constitution and the nation's laws. The Constitution, she said, is "a living document intended to evolve as our country evolved."

Feinstein expressed concern about how Gorsuch would rule on abortion, which was legalized by the Supreme Court in its 1973 Roe v. Wade opinion. Describing the right to abortion as "settled law" for the last 44 years, she said the nominee's "writings do raise questions" about his view of Roe as precedent, though Gorsuch has yet to rule on the issue.

The committee must determine if Gorsuch is "a reasonable, mainstream conservative" and whether he will protect all Americans and "not just the wealthy and the powerful," Feinstein said.

The charge that Gorsuch favors the powerful has become a major part of opponents' arguments against his confirmation.

NARAL Pro-choice America—a leading abortion rights organization—and other liberal groups have urged their members to call on Democrats not only to vote against Gorsuch's confirmation but to filibuster -- or block a confirmation vote.

"Judge Gorsuch is not a mainstream nominee," NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said in a written statement. "He is more conservative than Justice Scalia and throughout his career has failed to protect everyday Americans' constitutional rights in favor of propping up corporations and special interests. Our message to Senate Democrats is clear: everything from Roe v. Wade to LGBTQ rights to workers' rights are on the line."

In the Feb. 1 letter sponsored by the ERLC, the Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders said they believe Gorsuch's judicial philosophy meets the thresholds of their "core social principles." Those precepts include "the protection of the unborn" in the Supreme Court's purview, along with "the strengthening of religious liberty" and "a dedication to human flourishing, which we believe can only be accomplished by a biblical definition of marriage and family."

In addition to ERLC President Russell Moore, the signers included current SBC President Steve Gaines; former convention presidents Page, Floyd, Jack Graham and Johnny Hunt; five of the six SBC seminary presidents; and other convention entity heads.

During his time on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch agreed with others on the court that the Obama administration's abortion/contraception mandate violated the free exercise of religion rights of Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor among other religious groups.

He wrote a 2006 book, "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia," before becoming a judge that argues against legalization of the end-of-life practices. Based on his judicial philosophy, however, Gorsuch has pledged to apply the law rather than his beliefs.

Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

Leave a comment