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Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch declared Tuesday he’s made no promises to Donald Trump or anyone else about how he’ll vote on abortion or other issues and testified he’ll have no trouble as a justice holding anyone accountable, including the president who picked him.
Gorsuch also called Trump’s attacks on federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”
During the long second day of his Senate confirmation hearings, Gorsuch made two other notable statements in response to questions from members of the Judiciary Committee, and both also related to Trump, who nominated him.
Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asked Gorsuch whether Trump had asked him to overturn Roe v. Wade, the case establishing a right to abortion, and what he would have done had Trump asked him to do so.
“Senator, I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch replied. “That’s not what judges do.” Later in the day, Gorsuch acknowledged that he and Trump discussed abortion during his Supreme Court interview, but only how divisive an issue it is. Their conversation touched on abortion, Gorsuch said, after Trump bemoaned his loss of Gorsuch’s native Colorado in November.
When Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy asked Gorsuch if a president is free to ignore laws on national security grounds, Gorsuch replied that “nobody is above the law in this country, and that includes the president of the United States.”
Some Democratic senators who are not on the Judiciary Committee called for a pause in the confirmation process after FBI Director James Comey said Monday that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in last year’s election and potential ties between Trump associates and Russia.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said on Twitter that while the investigation continues, “lifetime court appointments can wait.”
Judiciary Committee chairman Chuck Grassley dismissed the idea as ridiculous.
On a day mostly devoid of drama, Gorsuch batted away Democrats’ efforts to get him to reveal his views on abortion, guns and other controversial issues, insisting he keeps “an open mind for the entire process” when he makes rulings. His comments were similar in response to questions from majority Republicans as they tried to help him highlight his neutrality in the face of Democratic attempts to link him to Trump.
The abortion question was especially pointed because Trump himself has insisted he would appoint “pro-life justices” who would vote to overturn the 1973 Roe decision.
Gorsuch likewise wouldn’t comment on litigation over Trump’s efforts to ban travel to the U.S. by people from some mainly Muslim countries. He did, however, say publicly what he had previously told senators in private about Trump’s attacks on judges who ruled against him on that issue.
“When anyone criticizes the honesty and integrity or the motives of a federal judge, I find that disheartening, I find that demoralizing,” he said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Democrat, asked, “Including the president?”
“Anyone is anyone,” Gorsuch replied.
As Tuesday’s questioning wore on, senators and Gorsuch engaged in a routine well-established in recent confirmation hearings. The nominee resists all requests to say how he feels about Supreme Court decisions, even as he is asked about them again and again. Such was the case with questions about rulings on campaign finance, abortion, gun rights and even a privacy ruling from 1965 that John Roberts explicitly endorsed in his confirmation hearing in 2005.
Gorsuch made one exception, describing the two-year-old decision extending same-sex marriage nationwide as “settled law,” a term he did not apply to any other decision.
The 49-year-old Denver appeals court judge kept a smile on his face most of the day, although he seemed to show flashes of anger under questioning from some Democrats.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) pressed Gorsuch on claims by a former student at the University of Colorado Law School who said Gorsuch implied in a legal ethics class in April that he believes many female job applicants unfairly manipulate companies by hiding plans to begin families. She remembered him saying that many accept job offers but quickly leave with maternity benefits.
“Those are not my words and I would never have said them,” Gorsuch said. He later explained he was trying to teach students about inappropriate questions from prospective employers, not endorsing such inquiries. Other students told the AP the accuser was misconstruing the lesson.
Gorsuch reacted sharply when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) asked him what he knew about a multimillion-dollar ad campaign run by a conservative group that backs his nomination. Ads have been running mainly in states won by Trump last year and in which Democratic senators face re-election in 2018.
“Is it any cause of concern to you that your nomination is the focus of a $10 million political spending effort and we do not know who’s behind it?” Whitehouse asked.
Gorsuch replied: “Senator, there’s a lot about the confirmation process today that I regret. A lot.”
Republicans are unanimous in support of Gorsuch. Democrats remain incensed over how Republicans treated former President Barack Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, who was denied even a hearing last year after Antonin Scalia’s death created an opening on the high court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insisted that since a presidential campaign was underway it was the right of the next president to fill the opening, and his gamble paid off when Trump won the election and chose Gorsuch.
Gorsuch declined a couple of invitations to tell senators how he felt about the treatment of Garland, saying only, “I think the world of Merrick Garland.”
There are now just eight justices on the nine-member high court.
In an interview Tuesday with Associated Press reporters and editors, McConnell dismissed “whining” and “crocodile tears” by Democrats over Garland, insisting they would have done the same in his position. With a Senate narrowly divided 52-48 between Republicans and Democrats, McConnell would need eight Democrats to get Gorsuch over procedural hurdles to a final confirmation vote.
He said Tuesday he remains hopeful of getting Democratic votes, but if they aren’t forthcoming, McConnell sounded prepared to move unilaterally to change Senate rules and confirm Gorsuch with a simple majority.
“If there aren’t 60 votes for a nominee like Neil Gorsuch, it’s appropriate to ask the question is there any nominee any Republican president could make that Democrats would approve,” he said. “Gorsuch will be confirmed — I just can’t tell you exactly how that will happen yet.”
Gorsuch also said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus doesn’t speak for him on abortion law.
Priebus said in February at a conservative conference that with President Trump’s nomination of Gorsuch, “we’re talking about a change of potentially 40 years of law.” That’s a reference to the 1973 landmark abortion decision Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
“Mr. Priebus doesn’t speak for me and I don’t speak for him,” Gorsuch said in response to Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken’s question on Priebus‘ comments.
Gorsuch added: “I don’t appreciate it when people characterize me … I am a judge, I am my own man.”
When Franken asked if he was comfortable with Priebus describing his nomination that way, Gorsuch said, “There is a lot about this process I am uncomfortable with.”
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