The Senate’s examination of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s record gave way multiple times Wednesday to renewed partisan warfare over the confirmation process, with a senior Republican blasting colleagues for “politicizing” the hearings – and the top Senate Democrat trolling Gorsuch on Twitter from the sidelines.
As Gorsuch plowed through his second day of questioning before the Senate Judiciary Committee, congressional leaders already were setting the stage for the next step: the confirmation vote. Democrats are threatening to filibuster, and Republicans are threatening to ram through the nomination in response.
Building a case for Democratic opposition, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer tweeted that Gorsuch’s testimony was “replete with humble metaphors & homespun stories but pitifully short on substance,” blasting him for “skillful evasion of questions.”
In the hearing room, ranking Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, of California, picked up that point, chiding the nominee for avoiding “specificity” before the committee.
“What worries me is you have been very much able to avoid any specificity, like no one I have ever seen before,” she told the nominee. “And maybe that’s a virtue, I don’t know.”
Gorsuch, like high court nominees before him, studiously has avoided offering his personal opinion on various court decisions and political controversies despite persistent efforts by senators to pin him down.
Democrats, though, entered the final stretch of the hearings suggesting Gorsuch was more evasive than most. Feinstein on Wednesday voiced concerns about his interpretation of the Constitution and law when it comes to issues like women’s rights.
“Young women take everything for granted today, and all of that could be struck out with one decision,” she said.
Gorsuch gave a variation of the disclaimer he’s given since the start of the process: “I can’t promise how I will rule in a particular case.”
“I don’t expect you to,” Feinstein responded, as Gorsuch again vowed to apply the law and consider precedent in his role.
But Democrats repeatedly took issue with Gorsuch’s vague answers – prompting Republican senators to jump to his defense.
Republicans repeatedly assured Gorsuch that they were impressed by his credentials and legal mind. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, “I haven’t seen anybody any better than you.” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, congratulated him for surviving the “gauntlet.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., in a fiery statement, accused Democrats of holding a “double-standard.” He said lawmakers are doing “great damage to the judiciary” by “politicizing” every nomination and looking for nominees to agree with their worldview.
“We’re taking the nomination process to a place it was never intended to go by the framers of the Constitution,” Graham said. “Alexander Hamilton would be rolling in his grave.”
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., countered that Republicans were the ones who “ignored the Constitution” and the Senate’s traditional role by refusing to consider former President Barack Obama’s nominee to the same court seat.
While Gorsuch generally is seen to be handling the exhaustive hearings with deft answers and a measured temperament, it remains unclear whether he can win over many Democrats, either on the committee or the Senate floor. Some, like Schumer, have even suggested his confirmation vote be delayed due to an FBI probe of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.
Republicans, though, have ridiculed the calls – and have the votes to push the nomination through if necessary, even if it means lowering the Senate vote threshold for confirmation.
Gorsuch seemed to flash frustration, if only briefly, on Wednesday during a tense round with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who as he did a day earlier pressed him on the role of money in politics and the controversial Citizens United campaign finance ruling.
In response to concerns that some on the Supreme Court could be bending to the will of corporations and Republicans, Gorsuch said: “I’m distressed to hear that you think that judges or the Supreme Court is an organ of the party. … It distresses me.”
“It distresses me, too,” Whitehouse said.
Gorsuch went on to say the rule of law works well and “to speak like that diminishes what we have.” He added, “It is, for me, a failure to appreciate the beauty of our system,” noting the courts resolve thousands of cases unanimously.
Whitehouse acknowledged that the 10th Circuit court on which Gorsuch serves rarely has party-line decisions, but noted the Supreme Court has had numerous 5-4 rulings.
“There is a point where it becomes reasonable to discern a pattern, and I see a pattern and it distresses me,” he said, again voicing concern corporations could “capture” the high court.
“Nobody will capture me,” Gorsuch said.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would fill the seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia. Democrats are concerned that despite his professed independence, Gorsuch would act as a reliable conservative vote on a split court.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., touched on this point Wednesday afternoon as he echoed Whitehouse’s comments, saying they’re worried about “another 5-4 Roberts court” ruling against workers and consumers. He questioned Gorsuch’s claim that there’s no such thing as partisan judges. If that’s the case, Franken said, “What was Merrick Garland about?”
Gorsuch also faced scrutiny Wednesday following a unanimous Supreme Court ruling on special education accommodations that tossed lower standards the judge had set in a 2008 opinion.
Gorsuch’s second day of questioning by lawmakers – and third hearing session overall – followed an opening round that lasted nearly 12 hours on Tuesday. Mostly cordial, that session became tense at times as Senate Democrats pressed him on a handful of controversial past court cases in which he was involved including one dealing with workers’ rights, as well as on concerns about his independence from President Trump.
Gorsuch insisted throughout that he would be his “own man,” and sought to parry concerns about some of his past decisions by insisting he was only following the law as written. While lawmakers repeatedly tried to gauge his view on other seminal court cases like Roe v. Wade and matters that could come before the high court soon like the president’s travel ban, Gorsuch followed a long tradition of Supreme Court nominees declining to voice their opinion on such controversies.
The hearings are expected to wrap Thursday with statements from outside witnesses.