Confirmation hearings for Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s choice for the United States Supreme Court, got underway Monday. The hearings are expected to last 3-4 days.
While the first day of the Gorsuch proceedings were overshadowed by the House Intelligence Committee hearings on Russia, Gorsuch — who has pretty much stayed out of the spotlight since he was nominated in January — will take center stage Tuesday when he's grilled by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
If confirmed, the 49-year-old federal appeals court judge will have a life appointment on the Supreme Court and (while everyone has their eyes on Russia) Trump will cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court for a generation — an impact for Americans and our rights that will outweigh any political damage to the Trump administration from the Russia investigation.
Context is key. The high-profile battle comes one year after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and his fellow Republicans refused to vote on President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, to fill the vacancy on the court left when Justice Antonin Scalia died over one year ago.
So, Senate Democrats are facing pressure from the left to oppose Trump/Gorsuch. But the GOP-controlled Senate is determined to confirm him, one way or another. McConnell wants to hold a final floor vote before the Easter recess. That won't happen without a fight.
On Day One of the hearings, senators laid out their battle lines:
The majority rang-out basic themes in defending Gorsuch. In statements on the record (and notably broadcast and streamed live) Republican senators praised Gorsuch's strong commitment to the same conservative approach to the Constitution as that of Scalia, along with his impressive credentials (Columbia undergrad and two law degrees, one from Harvard and one from Oxford).
No Republican came close to apologizing for blocking Judge Garland. Instead, they claimed they had empowered the American people to choose the next president to nominate Scalia’s successor.
The minority party has entirely different priorities and does not want to go down without a fight. Ranking member of the committee Diane Feinstein (D, CA) led with the denial of Obama's pick as a threat to judicial independence. She led the way for her fellow Democrats who argued that the Republican obstruction of the Garland nomination was disingenuous and undemocratic, and that the GOP has created a dangerous precedent (the opposition party holding Supreme Court seats "hostage" until someone from that party is in the White House).
On the merits, it's tough to challenge his credentials, but they tried, arguing Gorsuch is not just, “in the mold of,” but is to the right of Scalia on key issues.
Bottom line: Monday was all about the Senators. Judge Gorsuch hardly got to speak at all. He introduced his family and colleagues at the start of the hearing. And he read a brief prepared (and largely predictable) statement late in the day. But there was no real interacation between the senators and the nominee. That comes Tuesday. Which is fine, since the focus on Monday was really across the street at the House Intelligence Committee's hearing on Russia.
LOOK AHEAD TO TUESDAY
We start at 9:30 a.m. ET, and expect it to get good early, with Gorsuch entertaining questions, under oath, from 20 Senators — some friendly, some skeptical, and some downright hostile to his nomination.
The judge has been preparing for this interrogation for weeks, with help from the White House Counsel’s office and former senator Kelly Ayotte.
Gorsuch’s testimony may only last one day, but that could be one super-long day — or it could spill-over to Wednesday. Here's why:
Each senator gets 30 minutes on the first round of questioning, 20 minutes on the second round, and there are 20 members on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Chuck Grassley (R, IA), the committee chair, could even allow for a third round of questions, but that is unlikely.
"A single day" was the hope Grassley expressed when he scheduled the hearings back in February: “That could be a short day if we’ve got one round. Or if we’ve got two rounds or three rounds, it could get to be a long day, but … my intention is to get it done that one day.”
QUESTIONS TO EXPECT
•Executive power and the limits on a president (Democrats will swipe at Trump/Republicans will snipe at Obama)
•President Trump's comments about the judiciary and "so-called judges."
•The travel bans (since they are likely to get to SCOTUS, in one form or another)
•Women's reproductive rights
•Religious freedom (especially where conservative values directly conflict with gay marriage/rights)
•Al Franken (D, MN) signaled in his opening statement that he will ask about the judge's opinions that favor corporate interests over individuals
•Gorsuch wrote 240 opinions over a decade of service at the federal court. So, generally expect some questions precisely tied to his decisions on the 10th Circuit.
Democrats do not have enough votes, on their own, to scuttle the Gorsuch nomination, even if they could get organized in their opposition, which they likely cannot. If they were to somehow get united and could somehow manage to to pick off at least three Republican senators, they might be able to cobble together a majority; but the chances of that are highly unlikely, given the nominee’s strong credentials — and the fierce determination of Republicans to hang onto Scalia’s seat.
More on the long game as we approach the Senate floor and a possible filibuster. That's right. I said filibuster.
Finally, if this is your thing, the Judiciary Committee has published, on its website, the candidate questionnaire and other related materials for your reading pleasure.