WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday began the first of four days of confirmation hearings on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who was lauded by Republicans as a highly respected, independent-minded judge with widespread support and impeccable credentials and denounced by Democrats as an extremist who has opposed workers' rights, abortion rights, environmental protections and gun control.
"No matter your politics ... you should be concerned about the preservation of our constitutional order and the separation of powers," said Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. "Fortunately for every American, we have before us today a nominee whose body of professional work is defined by an unfailing commitment to these principles. His grasp on the separation of powers — including judicial independence — enlivens his body of work."
But Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the committee's senior Democrat, said Gorsuch's writings suggest that he opposes the Supreme Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 in favor of abortion rights. She said she also was concerned about two opinions he wrote that would make it easier for convicted felons to obtain firearms.
"Who sits on the Supreme Court should not simply evaluate legalistic theories and Latin phrases in isolation," Feinstein said. "They must understand the court's decisions have real world consequences for men, women and children across our nation."
This will be the first time that most Americans have heard from Gorsuch — a judge for the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver — since he was introduced to the public by President Trump at the end of January to replace conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, who died more than a year ago. Gorsuch will deliver his opening remarks Monday after being introduced by the two senators from his home state of Colorado — Republican Sen. Cory Gardner and Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet.
But most of Monday will be taken up by the opening statements of the committee's 11 Republican senators and nine Democratic senators as they lay out the case for and against Gorsuch's confirmation. Gorsuch, 49, is expected to face tough questioning from the panel's Democrats beginning Tuesday.
The committee, whose members range from liberal Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to conservative Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is poised to vote in early April on whether to recommend that Gorsuch be confirmed by the full Senate.
It will take 60 votes on the Senate floor to advance Gorsuch's nomination, meaning that he must attract the support of at least eight Democrats since Republicans hold only 52 seats in the closely divided chamber. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has expressed confidence that Gorsuch can get 60 votes. If that doesn't happen, McConnell has the option of invoking the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority of 51 votes.
McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., have been previewing the arguments for and against Gorsuch for weeks.
In a speech on the Senate floor a week ago, McConnell touted the fact that Gorsuch had just been rated as "well qualified" by the American Bar Association, which is made up of more than 400,000 attorneys, law students and others interested in the legal profession.
"That’s high acclaim from an organization that our colleagues on the left have long considered the ‘gold standard,' " McConnell said. "It’s the type of acclaim we keep hearing from Democrats and Republicans in the legal community. Judge Gorsuch has an impressive resume and impressive credentials to match. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia in just three years, got his law degree from Harvard, and he’s an Oxford scholar to boot. The Senate confirmed him to his current position on the circuit court without a single vote in opposition. He’s the right jurist for the job."
Schumer, in a speech on the Senate floor last week, said Gorsuch "may act like a studied, neutral judge, but his record suggests he actually has a right-wing, pro-corporate special interest agenda."
"Judge Gorsuch may sometimes express a lot of sympathy for the less powerful verbally, but when it comes time to rule, when the chips are down, far too often he has sided with the powerful few over everyday Americans trying to get a fair shake," Schumer said. "He has repeatedly sided with insurance companies who wanted to deny disability benefits to employees. In employment discrimination cases, Bloomberg (News) found he has sided with employers 66% of the time ... And on money in politics — the scourge, the poison of our political system, undisclosed dark money — Judge Gorsuch seems to be ... willing to restrict the most common-sense contribution limits."
The debate is complicated by the bad blood between Democrats and Republicans over former president Barack Obama's final Supreme Court nominee. Obama nominated appeals court Judge Merrick Garland, widely viewed as a moderate, to replace Scalia in March of last year. But Republican leaders refused to even hold confirmation hearings on Garland, saying that Obama should not be allowed to appoint a justice in the final year of his presidency and that the decision should be left to his successor. Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups see the GOP action in Garland's case as "stealing" a Supreme Court seat from Obama.