Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch called it an easy question Tuesday when asked if he would have any trouble ruling against President Donald Trump, who nominated him to the high court.
“That’s a softball, Mr. Chairman,” Gorsuch responded to Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa. “I have no difficulty ruling for or against any party, other than what the law and the facts in a particular case require.”
It was the first question of a long day of questioning from committee members, and directly addressed Democratic concerns about Gorsuch’s independence from Trump that promises to be a theme throughout the hearing.
Gorsuch said the genius of separation of powers remains, and the judicial branch is “down at the bottom,” and shouldn’t be making law because judges have life tenure. The federal appeals court judge from Colorado said he is just as likely to dissent from a Democratic-appointed colleague as a Republican-appointed one.
“There’s no such thing as a Republican judge or a Democratic judge — we just have judges in this country,” Gorsuch said.
Gorsuch on Judicial Independence: ‘That’s a Softball’
And the 49-year-old judge said the committee should be reassured that nobody on Trump’s team asked him for any commitments or promises about how he might rule in any case. He said he would never make any such promises.
“I don’t believe in litmus tests for judges,” Gorsuch said. “I wasn’t about to become a party to such a thing.”
Democrats will question Gorsuch’s views on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to abortion, since Trump pledged during the campaign to nominate a Supreme Court justice who would overturn that landmark case.
Gorsuch testified that Roe is a precedent of the Supreme Court that has been reaffirmed as law, and should be treated as such.
Additionally, Democrats have said they will highlight and probe Gorsuch’s views on the rights of large corporations over workers and a longstanding legal principle that affects environmental, labor and other civil rights laws.
No details on hot-button issues
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., pressed Gorsuch on his views about religious tests, mentioning that a Republican lawmaker said Gorsuch’s confirmation would be the best thing to help Trump’s efforts aimed at temporarily blocking certain immigrants, refugees and travelers from Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States.
Trump called it a “Muslim ban” during the campaign and critics say it infringes on religious freedom. Lawsuits have challenged Trump’s original order as well as a revised one that is narrower in scope.
“Senator, a lot of people say a lot of silly things,” Gorsuch said. “He has no idea how I’d rule in that case. And, Senator, I’m not going to say anything here that would give anybody any idea how I would rule in any case like that that could come before the Supreme Court or my court, the 10th Circuit.”
Leahy Presses Gorsuch on ‘Muslim Ban’
It would be grossly improper “if someone sitting at this table, in order to get confirmed, had to make promises or commitments about how they would rule in a case that is currently pending and likely to make it’s way to the Supreme Court,” Gorsuch continued.
The judge gave similarly evasive answers when asked his opinion about other hot-button decisions — a tradition of Supreme Court nominees who don’t want to tip their hand on how they would rule in a case.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee’s top ranking Democrat, asked Gorsuch his view about Second Amendment gun rights and whether he agreed with the majority or the minority in a landmark Supreme Court case — a 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008. That decision found an individual right to possess a firearm at home for self-defense and struck down the D.C. ban on possession of a handgun.
Gorsuch responded he worried that if he agreed with one side or the other would mean he couldn’t be fair in “lots of litigation” that is ongoing. What doesn’t matter is his opinion, he said, but that the Heller makes clear the standard of interpreting gun restriction laws.
“It’s binding, it’s the law, whether we like it or not, it’s the law,” Gorsuch said. “It’s not a matter of agreeing or disagreeing, senator, respectively, it’s a matter of it being the law. My job is to apply and enforce the law.”
Feinstein also asked him how senators could have confidence he would side with “the little person” over the big corporations, a common concern of Democrats since Gorsuch was put on a list of potential Supreme Court picks for Trump by The Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, both conservative groups with a pro-business view.
“From the bottom of my heart, is that I’m a fair judge,” Gorsuch said, listing cases where he sided with the little guy. “I can’t guarantee you more than that, but I can promise you absolutely nothing less.”
Grassley said that he wanted to get through the first round of questions Tuesday, when each of 20 members will get 30 minutes to ask questions. Outside witnesses called by Republicans and Democrats will testify later in the week.