WASHINGTON: A brilliant conservative judge with a prestigious resume, Neil Gorsuch is a proponent of traditional values, a strict reading of the Constitution and protections for the role of religion in American society.
The elegant, silver-haired 49-year-old on Friday became the youngest justice confirmed to the US Supreme Court in a quarter-century.
Little known until recently, the Colorado native with an Ivy League education survived an unusually rugged obstacle course between his nomination by President Donald Trump and his confirmation by the Senate 66 days later.
Grilled over some 20 hours by Democratic senators — still steaming over the refusal by Republicans last year to consider Barack Obama’s nominee for the same high-court opening — Gorsuch maintained an Olympian calm.
Known as unfailingly polite, he has drawn praise for his diplomatic skills and a certain intellectual rigor.
An 11-year veteran of the federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver, Gorsuch promised during his Senate confirmation hearings to resist any political influence. He insisted he would not hesitate to judge a case involving Trump himself, should it come to that.
He ultimately offered few personal opinions, saying he needed to maintain the untarnished independence required of one hoping to fill one of the nine seats in the high court.
Fans and detractors
Still, many of Gorsuch’s convictions are known, particularly among conservative groups. The National Rifle Association, for one, did not hesitate to spend nearly $1 million on ads lobbying on his behalf.
He was also backed by right-leaning groups like the Federalist Society and the Heritage Foundation, which favor a conservative evolution of US law.
Gorsuch authored a book on the moral and legal arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide, and backed companies that refused to provide contraception to their employees, as Obama’s health care reform called for.
His pedigree will clearly reassure most Trump supporters, with some comparing him to the late justice Antonin Scalia, whose seat he will now fill.
But many Democrats found Gorsuch’s judicial history troubling.
In a 2009 case, he sided with the owner of a trucking company who had fired a driver for abandoning his trailer when its brakes froze in subzero temperatures. The man had unhitched the trailer and driven away in search of shelter after waiting several hours for help.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, said Gorsuch seemed to have a troubling habit of siding with the powerful over the powerless, and with companies and big donors over those who worked for them.
Gorsuch’s traditionalist views and incisive opinions have fueled comparisons with Scalia, the towering conservative justice who died at age 79 in February 2016.
Like Scalia, Gorsuch favors what is known as originalism — the idea that judges should interpret the US Constitution by studying the intent of those who wrote it, with no modern filters.
The Columbia and Harvard grad says he is flattered by the comparisons. He said when he learned of Scalia’s death, he was on the ski slopes.
“I am not embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t see the rest of the way down the mountain for the tears,” he said in a speech.
By nominating Gorsuch, Trump sent a positive message to the so-called flyover states — those you fly over to get from the East Coast to the West Coast — that they have not been forgotten.
Those states largely voted for the Republican billionaire, but none of the current eight Supreme Court justices hails from that part of the country.
East Coast education
Gorsuch says he remains attached to his native Colorado, where he likes to go fly-fishing and where, with his wife Louise and their two daughters, he raises horses, chickens and goats.
But the judge, who comes from a relatively affluent family, is no stranger to the East Coast. He moved to Washington as a teenager, when his mother was named to head the Environmental Protection Agency under Ronald Reagan.
He earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University in New York and a law degree from Harvard — shortly after a certain Barack Obama got his.
He then headed across the Atlantic to study at Oxford — perhaps explaining his penchant for quoting Churchill.
Gorsuch knows his way around the Supreme Court building — he was a clerk for the late Byron White and also for Anthony Kennedy who, at 80 years old, will now be his colleague.
He then worked as a litigation attorney for a Washington firm before taking a job in the Justice Department under George W. Bush. It was Bush who nominated him for the federal court position in Denver.
On the high court, Gorsuch will join:
— Elena Kagan (56) and Sonia Sotomayor (62), appointed by Barack Obama
— Chief Justice John Roberts (62) and Samuel Alito (67), appointed by George W. Bush
— Stephen Breyer (78) and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (84), appointed by Bill Clinton
— Clarence Thomas (68), appointed by George H.W. Bush
— Anthony Kennedy (80), appointed by Ronald Reagan