Judge Neil Gorsuch took office Monday, April 8 as an associate judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, taking the seat of the late Antonin Scalia after a bruising confirmation process. Gorsuch was confirmed in a 54-45 vote by the Senate Friday, after Senate Republicans enacted a rules change disallowing filibusters for Supreme Court Nominees the day before.
Senate Democrats largely opposed Gorsuch on the basis that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R, KY) refused hearings and a vote for former President Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland. Dianne Feinstein (D, CA) suggested in his hearing that he was not “for the little guy,” expressing concern about Gorsuch’s alleged commitment to originalism, a method of interpreting the Constitution that focuses on the original meaning of the text. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D, NY) expressed further concern that Gorsuch is not neutral, but has a “deep-seated conservative ideology.”
The Senate Republicans’ use of the “nuclear option” ending filibusters for Supreme Court nominees also provoked significant concern. Schumer described it as “the end of a long history of consensus on Supreme court nominations.” The nuclear option was invoked on a 52-48 party-line vote. In 2013, Democrats voted in favor of a similar measure ending the filibuster for lower courts and cabinet nominations, after a Republican filibuster blocking several nominees for those positions, especially the United States Court of Appeals for the Washington, D.C. Circuit. Republicans such as Bob Corker (R, TN) mourned the partisanship of the senate, saying that if “if we do not have respect for the institution we serve and for ourselves, no one else will,” but ultimately voted for the nuclear option, blaming the 2013 vote for the partisanship.
The filibuster remains available for debate about legislation, but several senators, including Corker, were skeptical that that would last. “The very next time” that contentious legislation comes up, said Corker, “somebody will do it.” Several senators expressed concern about future Supreme Court nominations, especially a concern about increasingly partisan picks. Angus King (I., ME) claimed that the Senate’s use of the nuclear option “eliminated one of its checks against polarization and partisanship.”
The confirmation of Gorsuch restores a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that dates back over 40 years, and the 49-year-old Justice is in the position to effect the court for decades. The court has 13 scheduled oral arguments in the coming weeks, including cases about President Trump’s executive orders limiting immigration, the North Carolina bathroom law and whether churches can receive government aid. Gorsuch will join the other justices and weigh in on what cases the court will accept in the fall term that starts in October.