Panel OKs Neil Gorsuch; showdown set in U.S. Senate

Neil Gorsuch is sworn in at the outset of Judiciary Committee hearings on March 20. Screen capture from Fox News Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch's approval by a Senate committee occurred the same day it became clear the Democrats have enough votes to block his confirmation barring a controversial rule change.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 11-9 along party lines on April 3rd to advance Gorsuch's nomination, but at least 41 Democratic senators have now announced they will oppose his confirmation, according to news reports. That means the Republican majority does not have the 60 votes necessary to halt a filibuster and bring about a floor vote. It appears the GOP leadership is willing to hold a vote to change the rules and confirm Gorsuch by a simple majority.

Senate floor action on the nominee is expected later in the week, with a vote to close debate possible Thursday.

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.

Religious liberty and pro-life advocates, conservatives in general and some liberals support Gorsuch's confirmation because of his judicial philosophy, practice and temperament. Abortion- and gay-rights supporters—among others on the opposite side of the bitter, three-decades-long battle over the Supreme Court—vehemently oppose him.

After the committee vote, Southern Baptist public policy leader Russell Moore described the nominee as "a brilliant, articulate defender of originalism and religious freedom."

"His qualifications easily commend him to serve on the Supreme Court, which I am glad to see the Senate Judiciary Committee recognize in approving his nomination," said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), in written comments for Baptist Press. "It's now time for the Senate to do the same thing. My hope is that the Senate will act swiftly to confirm Judge Gorsuch and that he will be a stalwart defender of human dignity and conscience freedom for decades to come."

Clarke Forsythe, acting president of Americans United for Life, applauded the committee vote and urged the Senate to confirm Gorsuch even if it requires changing the filibuster rule.

Gorsuch "carefully considers the laws and facts before reaching a legal judgment," Forsythe said in a written statement. "That kind of measured respect for the Constitution was absolutely absent when an activist Supreme Court combined Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton [in 1973] to wipe out every abortion-related law in the country, establishing the Supreme Court as a National Abortion Control Board."

Meanwhile, abortion rights organizations such as NARAL Pro-choice America and gay rights groups such as the Human Rights Campaign continued to call for defeat of the nominee.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said, however, "[W]e're going to confirm Judge Gorsuch this week.

"Exactly how that happens will be up to our Democratic colleagues," McConnell said April 2 on Fox News.

McConnell appears committed to invoking what is commonly referred to as the "nuclear option" if necessary to bring about Gorsuch's confirmation. That change in Senate rules would mean the nominee would require only 51 votes for confirmation instead of the 60 required to stop debate and move to a floor vote. When they were in the majority in 2013, Democrats used the "nuclear option" to reduce to 51 the number of senators required to confirm judicial nominees below the Supreme Court level.

Before the Judiciary Committee vote April 3, Republicans and Democrats on the panel explained the votes they were prepared to cast. The GOP members described Gorsuch as a highly qualified candidate who refuses to act as a legislator but rules on the basis of the Constitution and law. Democrats said he refused to answer their questions about past Supreme Court opinions and favored the powerful in his rulings. They also criticized the Republicans' refusal last year to consider President Obama's nominee to replace Scalia—Merrick Garland of the District of Columbia Circuit Court.

"He's a mainstream judge who's earned the universal respect of his colleagues on the bench and in the bar," the committee's chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said of Gorsuch April 3. "He applies the law as we in Congress write it—as the judicial oath says, without respect to persons. And he refuses to compromise his independence."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said: "We essentially made this presidential election on November 8 a referendum on which of the candidates do you want to pick the nominee" to fill Scalia's seat.

If the Democrats will not vote for a judge as qualified as Gorsuch, they will "never support a nominee of this president, because in the end, I think that's what really gets their goat the most," Cornyn said.

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., expressed doubts about Gorsuch's position on the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, saying he is concerned the nominee "harbors a restrictive view of the right to privacy and personal liberty."

"Judge Gorsuch's record shows a tendency to searchingly explore broader issues than what is necessary to decide the case that is before him, a willingness to revisit long-settled precedent and to promote actively changes to the law," Coons said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told the panel Gorsuch tends "toward ideological decisions" and "gave us no real sense of his views."

During his time on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch has 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.

Although he has not ruled on abortion, Gorsuch 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.

The ERLC sponsored a letter Feb. 1 in which more than 50 Southern Baptist and other evangelical leaders called for confirmation of Gorsuch. The signers said they believe Gorsuch's judicial philosophy meets the thresholds of their "core social principles." Those precepts include in the Supreme Court's purview "the protection of the unborn, 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," they said.

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

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