Sen. Michael Bennet is facing pressure to support his home state’s Supreme Court nominee not just from Republicans, but also from one of Colorado’s most popular figures, Denver Broncos great John Elway.
Shortly before the Colorado Democrat was set to introduce Judge Neil Gorsuch at his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Monday, the appellate judge’s publicity team released a letter that the revered former quarterback and current Broncos’ general manager sent to the committee in favor of Gorsuch’s nomination.
“Neil is a big Denver Broncos fan, and I can tell you that I’m a big fan of his,” Elway wrote to the committee members.
If confirmed, Gorsuch would be the second Coloradan to serve on the Supreme Court after Justice Byron White, who was Gorsuch’s mentor. White was appointed deputy attorney general and later nominated to the Supreme Court by President John F. Kennedy.
White, nicknamed “Whizzer” White, was an All-American football player for the University of Colorado and went on to play professional football in its early days.
Colorado’s junior senator, Republican Cory Gardner, noted that Gorsuch would be “the only Coloradan to serve on the Supreme Court that did not break the NFL rushing record.”
“The good news is today he has the endorsement of No. 7, Mr. Elway of the great Denver Broncos,” Gardner said.
How important is Elway to the Centennial State? He led the Broncos to the franchise’s first Superbowl win in 1998.
“In Colorado today, there’s God, there’s John Elway and there’s Peyton Manning,” Gorsuch said in his opening statement. “In my childhood, it was God and Byron White,” he continued, paying homage to White not just as a jurist but as a gridiron great.
“I want to thank my legal heroes. Byron White. My mentor. A product of the West. He modeled for me judicial courage. He followed the law wherever it took him, without fear or favor to anyone. War hero. Rhodes scholar, and, yes, the highest-paid NFL player of his day,” he said.
Bennet said Gorsuch “exemplifies some of the finest qualities of Colorado, a state filled with people who are kind to one another, who by and large do not share the belief that one party or one ideology is all right or all wrong.”
But Bennet did not say if he would support Gorsuch for the high court, telling the committee, “I am keeping an open mind on this nomination.”
His introduction did highlight what he saw as two clouds hanging over the proceedings, which the committee’s Democrats also acknowledged. The first is the Republicans’ refusal to hold a hearing or a vote on President Barack Obama’s nominee to fill the vacancy, Judge Merrick Garland.
Bennet said it was tempting to deny Gorsuch a fair hearing, but, “Two wrongs never make a right.”
The second cloud was President Donald Trump’s personal attacks on federal judges who have ruled against him in court. Gorsuch has privately told senators that such attacks were “disheartening,” but Democrats are expected to pressure him to say so in the public hearing.
“I have no doubt that unlike the president, Judge Gorsuch has profound respect for an independence of the judiciary and the vital role it plays as a check on the executive and legislative branches,” Bennet said. “I may not always agree with his rulings, but I believe Judge Gorsuch is unquestionably committed to the rule of law.“
Since he represents the judge’s home state, Bennet is one of the Democrats who could buck the majority of his party and help move Gorsuch’s nomination forward.
With 52-48 Senate majority, Republicans need eight Democrats to vote to end debate on Gorusch’s nomination in order for it to advance past any possible filibuster. But if the Republicans do not garner enough Democratic votes, they could opt to change the Senate rules and lower the current 60-vote threshold to end debate on Supreme Court nominees.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley said Gorsuch has an unfailing commitment to constitutional order and the separation of powers.
“In recent months, I’ve heard that ‘now more than ever’ we need a justice who is independent, and who respects the separation of powers,” Grassley said. “His grasp on the separation of powers — including judicial independence — enlivens his body of work.”
Grassley’s comments sought to address one of Democrats’ main concerns: Will Gorsuch say ‘no’ to the man who appointed him?
“We need to know what you’ll do when you’re called upon to stand up to this president, or any president, if he claims the power to ignore laws that protect fundamental human rights,” Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said. “You’re going to have your hands full with this president. He’s going to keep you busy.”
Todd Ruger contributed to this report.