Confirmation Hearing Briefing: What to Watch: Judge Gorsuch’s Confirmation Hearings


■ The Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Neil M. Gorsuch are set to begin on Monday, as Republicans seek to install the court’s next conservative stalwart and Democrats decide how aggressively to push back.

■ Though much of the week will focus on Judge Gorsuch’s parrying of questions from senators, his first day is more of an introduction — a chance to cast himself as a fair-minded and dispassionate jurist and to set the tone for the days that follow. Democrats may supply a counternarrative.

Here is what to expect on Capitol Hill:

In recent weeks, President Trump’s cabinet nominees have not always seemed entirely prepared for their congressional hearings. That’s unlikely to be the case with Judge Gorsuch.

Appraised even by skeptics as gifted and poised, Judge Gorsuch has been in deep preparations for weeks, including meetings with 72 senators, by his team’s count. The centerpiece of Monday’s proceedings will be his opening statement before the Judiciary Committee, his first meaningful public remarks since the evening of his nomination.

That initial speech, delivered from the White House beside Mr. Trump, may offer some clues to his strategy. It included soaring paeans to the judiciary — talk of the need for “impartiality and independence, collegiality and courage” — as well as choice bits of biography and humor.

He spoke of working for Justice Byron R. White, a fellow Coloradan who was also an all-American halfback at the University of Colorado and a Rhodes Scholar. Judge Gorsuch noted, to laughs, that Justice White was “the only justice to lead the N.F.L. in rushing.”

His opening remarks on Monday are expected to last about 10 minutes.

Since Republicans refused to even meet last year with President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick B. Garland, Democratic activists have been waiting for their moment to exact revenge. It is not clear that their representatives share this urge.

By nominating a plainly qualified judge, Mr. Trump has forced Democrats to reckon with the kind of obstructionism they long condemned from Republicans. While several members have already said they will vote against Judge Gorsuch, the prospect of an institution-rattling fight has concerned some more moderate Democrats, particularly those who face re-election in states that Mr. Trump won.

If Judge Gorsuch cannot meet the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster, Republicans could change longstanding rules and elevate him on a simple majority vote.

In the hearings, if recent history is a guide, some of the sharpest questioning might come from Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, whose approach at the cabinet hearings produced several memorable moments. (These included coaxing Jeff Sessions, now the attorney general, to say he had not had “communications with the Russians” during the presidential campaign, despite Mr. Sessions’s since-divulged contacts with the Russian ambassador.)

So far, objections to Judge Gorsuch — which have gotten little traction to date — have generally come in two forms from Democrats: His record suggests a bias toward corporate interests, they argue, and …

… He has failed to demonstrate sufficient independence from the judiciary-bashing president who chose him. From the beginning, Mr. Trump has put Judge Gorsuch in a difficult spot, leveling explosive attacks against judges who have thwarted his executive orders seeking to ban travel from certain predominantly Muslim countries.

In meetings with senators, Judge Gorsuch called such attacks on the judiciary “disheartening,” but he has declined to address the issue publicly.

Given the anti-Trump fervor gripping the progressive left, Democrats may feel compelled to make the hearings as much a referendum on the president as his nominee. How Judge Gorsuch navigates this tension — and how forcefully he chooses to break with Mr. Trump, if at all — could determine his fate with several senators on the committee and in the full Senate vote.

Look for him to create at least some gentle distance from Mr. Trump, a man whose approval he already secured when it mattered.

The professor with cancer. The freezing trucker. The craft-store chain with the rhyming name.

For weeks, Democrats have been sifting through Judge Gorsuch’s judicial history, girding for hearing-room confrontations that might trip him up. Among the cases they are expected to highlight:

■ The so-called Hobby Lobby case, in which Judge Gorsuch voted in favor of the chain after it objected to regulations requiring employers to provide free contraception coverage.

■ The saga of a truck driver fired for abandoning his cargo for his own safety in subzero temperatures; Judge Gorsuch argued in a dissent that the company was permitted to fire him.

■ The struggles of a professor whose discrimination claim Judge Gorsuch denied after she lost her job upon taking time off to recover from cancer.

The Monday math is grim for C-Span viewers and other assorted political masochists: 20 senators, plus 10 minutes each for opening statements, should equal quite a bit of pontificating before the meat of the hearings arrives.

Separately, Judge Gorsuch’s home-state senators from Colorado — Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican, and Senator Michael Bennet, a Democrat — will introduce the nominee. So will Neal K. Katyal, a former acting solicitor general under Mr. Obama.

The tenor of the hearings will be set in large measure by the committee’s chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, and his Democratic counterpart, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California. But others will surely have their say.

While Mr. Franken is among the most anticipated Democratic questioners, Republicans will probably play a different role: helping to usher Judge Gorsuch through without too many scratches.

The committee’s Republican roster includes several members with a nose for camera lights: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who has argued nine cases before the Supreme Court and often speaks as though he has never stopped; Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the body’s crackling barstool wit; Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who could face a thorny re-election bid next year in a long-red state that Mr. Trump carried by less than four points.

Can any resist an occasion to hold forth on judicial philosophy before a national audience? That much will be quickly confirmed.



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